Anyone who is currently a pet owner, or has had a pet, probably knows firsthand what the term “animal-assisted therapy” means. The many ways in which an animal in our lives is there for us, are plenty. So who better to receive these furry blessings, than those who are in the most need of unconditional love: the sick, the lonely, and those who are dying. The dogs are a compassionate, nonjudgmental presence in all of these circumstances.
Animal-assisted therapy has been offered at Evergreen Hospice since approximately 1999. There are currently 5 teams of volunteers and their dogs, who visit patients and their families. Hospice AAT dogs are certified by an organization known as the Delta Society. They evaluate dogs for AAT work, and offer a host of resources. One in particular, is to “expand the therapeutic and service role of animals in human health, service, and education.”
Most of the dogs will go through a training school to gain certification with the Delta Society. Once certified, the teams can work in a variety of situations: Reading Rover programs at local bookstores, nursing homes, hospices, and hospitals.
I attended the hospice AAT meeting in February, and came away with great respect and admiration for our teams. The devotion they have towards their “pet partners” was obvious. There was pride and amazement in their voices, as they recalled some of the memorable visits they had with patients and families.
In the children’s bereavement group, for instance, the AAT dog has proved very successful in calming down agitated or active children. They can sense which child seems to be in the most need of their attention, and will then lie down beside them. Many times, parents report their children talking about their feelings for the first time, following one of these group sessions.
The AAT visits with patients at hospice are made even more poignant by the fact that many have had to give up their beloved pets, and resigned themselves to never being able to pet an animal again. Two such visits illustrate the impact of a therapy pet on patients,and the families. As one team entered a room,they were greeted with the bright, happy expression on a patient’s face upon seeing the dog. Smiles spread across the family members faces, at seeing their loved one’s joy, and the atmosphere in the room was immediately lightened. The second visit portrayed the small, but significant response of a patient who was thought to be comatose. They tightly gripped the fur of the therapy dog, which brought joy filled tears to the family members as they witnessed this emotional display of affection.
Clearly, we can see the wonderful stories that come out of these teams’ experiences, and the effect they have on others. Although, how does this work affect the dogs themselves?
One owner said the dogs are extremely empathic and sensitive to the energy around them. This is best supported by the fact that all of the dogs sleep for several hours after a shift. Even more interesting, is how all of the giving that these dogs do on their shift, is balanced by the energizing effect that apparently happens when they’re greeted by hospice staff. One team member said the attention gives the dog a feeling of “receiving,” which helps achieve that balance.
Animal Assisted Therapy results can be subtle at times, but unlike other therapies,they are immediate and obvious. There is no doubt that this approach works. It is recognized and well documented that it is adaptable to many kinds of animals, and many different needs. The scope of this idea can be seen in a wide range of situations: special needs children swimming with dolphins, to help accelerate their vocal and physical development. Riding horses to strengthen muscles and gain confidence. Utilizing dogs to provide a calming effect with Alzheimer’s patients, to therapy animals of all kinds simply providing a source of comfort to those who need it most. The love and calm conveyed to us by these special animals are a remarkable gift, from them to us all.