Animal Assisted Therapy


Pets as our partners in care.


The idea of dogs walking around a hospital may sound strange. But it’s not so uncommon at Essentia Health, which established a Duluth therapy dog program in 1993. At that time, only two other hospitals in the country had been using dogs to help patients find comfort and heal.

Today, a growing number of clinicians—from psychotherapists to physical therapists and more-are using therapy animals to facilitate care. And they’d love to do more.

At the Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center, Humble happily helps kids regain motor control during petting, grooming or games of fetch. He helps kids relearn speech through calls and commands. Sometimes, he simply acts as motivators for kiddos to feel calm. Those who have had the experience of a therapy dog visit know that a friendly, non-judgmental guest with a wagging tail can make all the difference in the world.

“I never ever underestimate the power of what the dogs can bring to our therapy sessions,” says Essentia Health retired physical therapist, Pam Forsythe, who used dogs to help her patients. “When you’re in the hospital, you’re in an artificial environment. It’s not home. The dogs bring that sense of home—along with so much more.”

So why is pet therapy a substantial investment? The requirements for therapy dogs at Essentia Health are very detailed because clinicians are very specific about their patients’ goals and expectations during recovery. And although the field of animal-assisted therapy has grown and the benefits are clear, experts readily acknowledge that the use of animals in medical settings suffers from a lack of knowledge and a lack of financial support.

“It takes a lot of energy and effort to train a therapy dog. And once the training is complete, vet checks, grooming and the expense of other necessities amount to far more than the cost of your average family pet,” says Joan Oswald of the Miller-Dwan Foundation.

A gift to the Miller-Dwan Foundation designated to the Pet Therapy Fund will recognize pets as our partners in care. Your gift will support the ongoing and expanded therapeutic use of animals in a variety of departments beyond mental health and physical rehabilitation.

“It’s been all smiles and the patient is very much looking forward to seeing Nova again next week. Anticipating the visits have truly been a highlight for our long-term patient!” 

Tammy Szewczynski, Certified Child Life Specialist at Essentia Health 



Interested in becoming a registered pet therapy team? Click here to learn more.

Read about Lou Ann, our therapy-dog-in-training! 

Therapy Dog



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