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 be able to do more.

At Miller-Dwan Foundation’s Amberwing-Center for Youth and Family Well-Being, “Elsa” the boxer dog knows just when to offer a loving kiss, when to break tension in the waiting room and even when to sit on someone’s lap.

At the Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center, “Skye” the Irish setter happily help patients regain motor control during petting, grooming or games of fetch. They help people relearn speech through calls and commands. Sometimes, they simply act as motivators for patients to get better. 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.

Animal Therapy

“I never ever underestimate the power of what the dogs can bring to our therapy sessions,” says Essentia Health physical therapist, Pam Forsythe, who uses 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 not that the animals have magic vibes coming out of them,” says William Banks of the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. “It’s a quality-of-life issue. It’s about giving people access to what they like and enjoy.”
-Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, July, 2002.


Animal Therapy2

Dr. Aubrey H. Fine would probably agree the comfort of a dog is like nothing else. Psychotherapist and professor at the California State Polytechnic University, Dr. Fine is a pioneer in the use of animals as caregivers. He described one of his first and most inspiring cases: five-year-old Diane was brought to him because she recoiled in fright from strangers, and though she spoke at home, she refused to speak to anyone else, including her kindergarten teacher.

It was a trained therapy dog named “Puppy” that eventually broke her selective mutism. Diane was petting Puppy, smiling and content, when Dr. Fine gave the dog a signal to walk away. Diane was crestfallen. Seeing the girl’s distress, Dr. Fine told her that all she had to do to get the dog back was to say, “Puppy, come.” Softly, the child said, “Puppy, come. Please come, Puppy.” That incident became the bridge Dr. Fine needed to help the child overcome her socially disabling problem.

“Children are more likely to reveal inner thoughts to the therapist because the animal is right next to them and helps them express themselves,” Dr. Fine said in an interview.
[A version of this article appeared on March 15, 2011in the New York Times.]

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