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Come, Sit, Stay… Heal: Therapy Dogs Help the Sick

dogA Golden Retriever named Chad went every day with his owner to visit a hospice. He seemed to know the difference between patients who needed a little laughter and those who were very ill and required a comforting presence. One terminally ill woman requested he sit by her side, and he lay quietly there for three hours, until she passed away.

It’s a proven scientific fact: pets really do help heal and calm. They are sensitive to human moods and emotions, and have a therapeutic effect on those in need of comforting.

From the times of the ancient Greeks, dogs have been used in various forms of therapy. These "therapy dogs" visit nursing homes, retirement homes, assisted living facilities, senior centers, children’s homes, day care centers, schools, hospitals, hospices, and churches. They cheer up patients, and act as the ultimate counselors, with their genuine honesty and true companionship.

The power of a pet
The founder of Therapy Dogs, Inc., Jack Butrick, discovered that Alzheimers patients will often remember an animal’s name. Health care facility staff members have reported that it is easier to talk to residents during and after animal visits. The presence of therapy dogs leads to laughter and comfort, and may help to decrease feelings of isolation. The touch of an animal is safe, non-threatening, and pleasant, which, in a therapy setting, is mandatory.

"Patients really look forward to our visits," said Susan Henke, manager of Best Friends Oklahoma City, and owner of a therapy dog and cat. "The pets obviously enjoy the visits too," she added, "because they’ll recognize their ‘favorite’ patients and seemingly smile at them or curl up in their laps!"

The use of therapy dogs has grown significantly over the years. Delta Society, an international organization dedicated to promoting the power of animals to heal human suffering, established their Pet Partners program in 1990 to ensure that "both ends of the leash" — people as well as animals — are well-prepared to participate in animal-assisted activity and animal-assisted therapy programs. More than 6,400 Pet Partners teams now operate in all 50 states and 6 other countries, helping more than 900,000 people each year. They even have their own spokesdog, Zelda, a "supermodel" English bulldog (www.zeldawisdom.com).

What it takes to be a therapy dog
Most therapy dogs are the personal pets of ordinary pet owners who want to give some of their time to provide services to others.

All therapy dogs must complete the basic obedience requirements of the AKC/Canine Good Citizen Test. The training process is not really difficult says Henke, and can be completed in 6-12 weeks, depending on previous obedience training.

Therapy dogs must meet certain personality criteria as well. "Just because dogs are sweet at home, does not necessarily mean they’re good therapy dog candidates," Henke says. Dogs should be highly socialized, affable and gentle, friendly and outgoing, never shy or afraid. They must get along well not only with old and young people, but with other animals as well.

Prospective therapy dogs are encouraged to complete a desensitization and orientation course. This course exposes the dog and owner to unfamiliar experiences and objects, and helps dogs adapt to noises that humans barely hear. The high pitched whine of a respirator, for example, can be very irritating to a dog’s ears, but is a commonly found in health care facilities.

Degrees of difference
Therapy dogs are not Assistance Dogs (Guide Dogs for the blind and the visually impaired, Hearing Dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing and Service Dogs for people with physical disabilities other than those related to vision or hearing.). They do not have the same legal status as assistance dogs. However, their function is no less valuable.

For more information on therapy dogs and getting started, visit www.deltasociety.org, and www.therapydogs.com.

Many Best Friends Pet Resorts offer basic and advanced obedience skills training and preparation for the Canine Good Citizen testing. For information, contact the Best Friends nearest you.