What is Pet Therapy?

By Allison Bokitch, BA., M.A. — Psych
Owner/Operator KENRO Dog Training Services & Registered Golden Retrievers
www.kenrodogtraining.com

St. John’s Ambulance defines pet therapy as “… bringing comfort, joy and companionship to members of the community who are sick, lonely or reside in full-time care facilities. Residents reap the therapeutic benefits of the unconditional love of a four-legged friend.” Along with this explanation, it is also a proven fact documented by the medical profession that the patting and stroking of a dog has a calming effect and can result in lower blood pressure and can ease tension (St. John’s Ambulance Therapy Dog brochure, 2005).

Allison Bokitch and her golden retrievers

What is a good therapy dog? What qualities and characteristics must my dog have in order to be a good therapy dog? Is there a specific breed used as a therapy dog? These are all questions that seem to arise when talking about potential therapy dogs. When it comes to pet therapy, there is no one breed of dog that is only allowed to participate. I have seen many breeds participate in therapy work; everything from Yorkshire terriers to Irish wolfhounds. I must share my bias now as I’m partial to thinking that golden retrievers are THE best therapy breed choice but I know that is not true. Having a dog that is well suited for therapy work goes well beyond knowing some obedience commands and being able to comply. Therapy work is for the dog that wants to do this work. When I was going through my testing there was a sheltie that was very obedient and listened and responded to every word her owner said; however she was reluctant around people and you could tell she did not enjoy herself at all. It was purely another task she was being told to do. Your dog has to want to be around people all the time. Your dog has to want to be constantly touched and sometimes roughly. Your dog has to thrive on being in the limelight so to speak!

Therapy dogs must not startle easily. In health care facilities, schools or prisons there is a lot of activity going on regularly. Your dog will be exposed to people moving very quickly. For this reason, you do not warn your dog to chase them or get extremely excited if this happens. Things bang and fall and if your dog startles and does not recover extremely quickly, it will hinder your work. You will encounter people that look different, they maybe don’t respond to your dog at all, or they might be wearing something different. Exposing animals to medical equipment is also very beneficial. Equipment that makes funny noises like an oxygen machine that has long hoses and attached equipment also makes some dogs either too curious or afraid. Socialization is the key when it comes to thinking about therapy work.

A dog you choose to do therapy work has to be calm and gentle. They do need to know some commands such as the basics like sit, down, and stay. Knowing how to walk on a loose leash is also very important. I always like to suggest that the dogs doing this work know a few other things as well. Teaching the command “leave it” is extremely important as there have been situations where Mr. Jones has spilled his lunch or Mrs. Smith has dropped her medication on the floor. I also use the command “paws up,” which means the dog is permitted to put his front paws on the side of the patient’s bed. Even if you have trained your dog to do this, please ask the patients if they would like you to do this as some individuals would not like a dog on their beds. This is particularly useful when you have a patient who is bedridden but still wants to interact with your dog. Many people think that if they want to participate in therapy work with their dog they will just get a breed that is usually friendly and that is it! Well, I can speak from experience that that is not always the case. You can not always predict that your animal is going to have what it takes to do this work, or more importantly, enjoy it. We have to remember that doing this work can be very stressful for dogs. Having a dog that is stressed can lead to many situations that you would want to avoid. Many dogs have great temperaments, are very obedient and listen well but you have to truly see a sparkle in their eye, or their eyes light up, or they smile when it’s time to go work. I am going to take that as my cue to retire them when I no longer see that sparkle when we get ready to go.

Visiting pets, therapy dogs, and therapy pets are just some of the names given to describe programs in which animals help people just by visiting with them. As participation in such programs grows so does the vocabulary describing different aspects of pet visiting. For example, the preferred use for the term Animal Assisted Therapy is for formal treatment programs, usually involving one particular animal and handler assigned to one particular client. The handler and the health care provider consult on specific goals to be accomplished and planning on how to accomplish those goals. The preferred use for more informal programs is Animal Assisted Activities. You will see a great variety of terms as groups struggle to find terms that are descriptive without being confusing. The most commonly used term for a dog visiting in residential care facilities is therapy dog.

Visiting with animals can help people feel less lonely and less depressed. Visits from dogs can provide a welcome change from routine or the renewal of old friendships. People become more active and responsive both during and after visiting with animals. An animal visit can offer entertainment or a welcome distraction from pain and infirmity. People often talk to the dogs and share with them their thoughts, feelings, and memories. Animal visits provide something to look forward to. Stroking a dog or cat can reduce a person’s blood pressure. Petting encourages the use of hands and arms, stretching, and turning. The pet makes it easier for two strangers to talk. It gives people a common interest and provides a focus for conversation. Many people in hospitals or group homes have had to give up pet ownership and they miss the casual acceptance a pet gives them. A dog pays little attention to age or physical ability but accepts people as they are. The benefits continue even after the visit. The visit leaves behind memories, not only of the visit, but of past experiences. It offers something for people to share.

First and foremost, we must acknowledge that a therapy dog is not a service dog. A therapy animal has no special rights to go into a building unless he is invited. There are certain documents that must be produced for the facility in order for you to be allowed entry with your dog. Please be aware that since pet therapy has not been around for long, there are still some facilities that have difficulty with allowing animals into a clean hospital. When you are allowed entry into a facility with your canine companion, please respond with a sincere thank you because you will be getting thanked in the end. Many think that they are doing you a favour by letting you come with your furry friend, but not long after they will realize that you are providing something to the residents of the facility that is almost unexplainable.

Providing pet therapy is merely allowing individuals who are sick, mentally challenged, lonely, or incapacitated in some way an outlet to receive some unconditional love and attention. Through this, it has been medically proven to lower blood pressure, ease tension and anxiety, foster communication, inspire a willingness to continue to live despite their medical condition, and to instill hope in whatever they may be clinging to.

In my experience, pet therapy can help a whole range of people. In the past we have worked with Alzheimer’s patients, shut-ins, blind people, physically and mentally challenged people, and people who are just plain lonely. The benefits to these people are immeasurable and the animals reach them in ways that we are not even able to realize. We must appreciate that even though we have documented medical evidence that shows us the physical things dogs and other animals can do for these people, we have to remember that sometimes we don’t really see anything with our eyes. When we think that we wasted our visit with Mr. Jones today, please stop and think about what you did for Mr. Jones. Maybe Mr. Jones had not talked for quite some time. Maybe he hadn’t sat up in his chair for even longer. Or maybe he hadn’t shown any emotion for a long time, and today he smiled. We must remember to notice the little things, because you probably have just made Mr. Jones’ day and you never even knew it! We also have to remember that when we visit with these people, our dogs see them as just another person. Our dogs don’t care if they are blind, drool a little, cannot speak properly, or tell the same story over and over again. Our dogs also provide them with unconditional love and non-judgmental interaction so that these patients can just be themselves; and for a moment they can forget about their disability.

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Hopefully by this point you are now getting a better idea about how pet therapy can help so many people, no matter the situation. I wish to leave you with a story that helped me to learn that sometimes we don’t need theories and psychological testing to measure success. Sometimes it is just seeing an individual thrive because of their spirits being lifted, even if it is only for a moment.

My dog and I went on one of our weekly visits to one of the hospitals we visit frequently and, as usual, my dog was very excited and eager to go to work. As we entered the building many were around wanting to pet my dog, of course, he didn’t mind at all — He is a true golden, of course! As we started making our rounds we noticed one of my dog’s favorite little ladies just sitting in her room. He always seemed to sense when he needed to go and see somebody, so off we went. Like always, I asked if she wanted us to come in and she did. She was a fine looking lady with silver hair and a very tiny stature. She always sat in her wheelchair and never said much. Although she never really said much to me, she was always very fixated on my dog. She would ask the same questions of me – like what my name was, what my dog’s name was, and what the weather was like. She, at times, seemed shy or nervous as my dog was a big boy but she never missed the opportunity for us to stop by. Gradually, as time went on, she did remember my dog but not his name. She would repeatedly ask me the same questions. She was much more comfortable with giving him treats as she would always comment on how gentle he was. After visiting her on many occasions, I began to question what we were really doing. Were we making a difference?

Every now and then a nurse would say “It’s so nice of you to come out,” or “Our residents really like your dog.” I was looking more for the psychological aspect of things, as that stems from my work. I guess I wasn’t sure how I was going to measure that until one day when my dog and I arrived at the hospital. All of sudden our “little, old, tiny lady” was excited. She never really showed any emotion or talked much before we started to come for visits. As I approached her she called over to her husband and daughter, who had been visiting, to see the dog that comes to visit. This is the most emotion or noise that I ever heard from this woman. She showed her relatives how she gave my dog a treat and patted him, and the best thing ever? She smiled! At the end of our visit that day this lady’s daughter came up to me and thanked me for doing what I do, as her mother has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t often show emotion or talk. The daughter told me that they have noticed a change in her mother since we started visiting. At this point I didn’t need to know any more psychological theories or ways to figure out our progress. Pet therapy is something that is very different to everybody and it’s measured in different ways, depending on who you talk to. When we are looking for some great revelation or earth shattering experience, we must think about the little old lady with the silver hair in her wheel chair showing no emotion. This is what pet therapy is all about – improving the quality of life of others around us.