Your Dog May Have a Hidden Ability to Help Heal
June 27, 2016 | Inspiring Stories
On any given day your dog can seem like a superhero to you, with the ability to snap you out of a grumpy mood with a simple wag of its tail. But what if inside that furry friend lay a real-life superhero with the power to help reduce blood pressure, lower anxiety and stress levels, stimulate good-feeling endorphins and help people live a more independent life? For 14,000 pets around the U.S., this is the case. They are members of a team of volunteers (not superheroes) who have been trained through the nation’s leading pet-therapy organization, Pet Partners.
The volunteer teams fan out all over the country to interact about one million times a year with people who need it. The types of people who benefit from human-animal therapy are growing each year as medical research grows, but some of the most significant populations that have benefited so far include veterans with PTSD, seniors living with Alzheimer’s, children with literacy challenges, hospital patients in recovery or rehab, people with intellectual disabilities and those in hospice care.
“We let our volunteers assess where they feel they will do best, whether that be a nursing home or a library,” says Mandy Pleshaw, Marketing Coordinator for Pet Partners. “Many times it has been prompted by some kind of interaction they have had prior to volunteering with us. They’ve seen their pet in a particular situation, and it just clicks that they should be doing this. And it’s a relief to many people that they can volunteer as much or as little as they choose and do it in a location of their choosing.”
Is Your Pet a Good Fit?
Pleshaw is quick to point out that nine different species of animals can be certified to become Pet Partners, including dogs, cats, llamas, alpacas, pigs, horses, rabbits, birds and even rats. She adds, “There’s a lot of scientific research that goes into determining that these specific species are suited to animal therapy sessions.”
But how do you know if your animal friend will be friendly with others? Pleshaw says the list is specific for each animal; but perhaps the easiest to specify is for dogs, which represent the vast majority of the organization’s volunteers. Dogs need to show basic obedience, not be aggressive toward other animals, walk loosely on a leash, come when called and be comfortable being touched by strangers.
Dr. Charlyn Quiec, a dentist in Monrovia, California, knew her Shih Tzu, Lolli, would be a perfect fit because Lolli’s temperament always seemed to calm Quiec’s anxious dental patients prior to treatment. It wasn’t a giant leap for Lolli to get certified and begin visiting a local hospital.
“You can see the benefits in the faces of the patients, they just light up. They feel like they’re taken out of the hospital for a bit,” she said. “And for those who had pets at home, they start talking about them, and you can see their muscles relax and their demeanor change as they pet Lolli.”
But Quiec says after an hour or two visiting patients, it was obvious Lolli was tired and ready to go home to rest. Pleshaw confirms that exhaustion is something they train people to watch for in their pets because it can lead to irritability, and the organization wants to ensure both pet and patient safety.
How Do I Sign My Pet Up?
Pet Partners uses a five-step registration process to certify therapy animals. Pleshaw says this helps ensure everyone’s safety. The process includes registering online, taking a training course, getting a medical exam for your pet, going through an evaluation so you and your pet can show off your newly learned skills, and filing some paperwork to become registered volunteers. Once registered, you will be able to select the volunteer opportunity you feel is best for you and your pet.
If you decide to become involved in Pet Partners or a similar program, you won’t be alone. “These programs are very popular, and I don’t think they’ve reached their prime yet. It’s exciting,” says Pleshaw. “Every day I get to hear stories of people who experience the benefits of this kind of therapy. A dementia patient won’t speak for months, but an animal will come in and she will start telling stories of barn animals she had when she was younger, for example. And as much as these animals are making a difference, you’d be so surprised to see how gracefully and beautifully our handlers also interact with everyone, too. It just covers you in goose bumps to see how sweet and how caring these people are.”