It’s a Tuesday evening in Ramona Larson’s home, and Kane and Jazz are prepping for work the next morning. They’ll be clean, groomed and ready to do something few canines in the region can: help humans get well after an illness or accident. When the trio arrives at Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center in Duluth, there will be smiles, hugs, ball tossing and lots of petting. But what looks like a lot of play is also a lot of work—for the trainer, dogs and patients alike.
These Irish setters do more than simply stop by for a good belly rub. During the half-day visits, Ramona works with Essentia Health therapists to discuss a patient’s physical, speech or occupational therapy goals. Then it’s go-time for the dogs, which must listen, obey and interact. For patients, therapy goals might require doing things with the dogs that take extra energy—like standing up, throwing a ball or speaking a command. But when a dog is part of the workout, therapy doesn’t seem like work. So the visits make a noticeable difference in the patient’s outcome.
“People are more willing and energized to do their therapy when they know it’s with the dogs. They look forward to it, and they do it better,” says Ramona, who volunteers her time and her dogs. “We find they try harder. In areas like speech, they get excited about talking about a dog they used to have. Or they get excited to reach down to pet the dog or take the ball. Or they’re more motivated to raise their arms to brush or pet. There’s just more motivation and it’s more fun.” Research shows the mere presence of a pet can enhance well-being. Because animal-assisted therapy requires intense training, Foundation support and community donations help bring these furry partners into hospital and clinic settings. It’s equally crucial to have a trained, compassionate human handler. Ramona has been volunteering for 20 years at Polinsky, helping patients recover from stroke, brain injury, accidents and diseases like Guillain-Barre. She’s also visited children, mental health patients and others in settings across the region.
“There’s such a need for pet therapy. You could turn it into a full-time job,” says Ramona, who has frequently been the only credentialed person doing this work. “It’s so worthwhile. If you’re willing to put in the training and have the desire to work with people as well as your dog, there’s a great need for it.”