For Some, Healthcare is Going to the Dogs

Wilson-Pet-TherapySometimes a good friend can also be good medicine – which is certainly the case for dogs and other animals who are used for animal-assisted therapy. Pet therapy (as it is more widely known) helps children, elderly people and anyone who needs the calm, accepting presence of an animal to deal with health-related issues and situations.

How pet therapy works

Animals can provide several types of therapeutic services.  From helping people cope with physical or mental illness, to being a companion or comfort to people, interaction with animals can improve the health and well-being of human beings.

Patients receive care in a variety of environments, some of which – like the hospital – can be more intimidating than others.

“Pet therapy can provide a distraction from the hospital environment. This can contribute to higher pain tolerance and better compliance with treatment,” said Fareed Tabatabai, MD, a psychiatrist with Memorial Physician Services – Vine Street.

Who benefits from pet therapy

Trained and registered animals are used for therapy in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools and other situations. Interaction with a pet can lower blood pressure and anxiety, while calming both adults and children.

“A dog doesn’t judge,” Dr. Tabatabai said. “People can interact with pets free of anxiety and stress, which offers innumerable benefits both physically and mentally.”

Pet therapy also is rewarding for the animal handler, said Connie Habenschuss, RN, who works in behavioral health at Memorial Medical Center. Her dog Wilson is a certified therapy dog who has visited patients at Memorial Medical Center for three years.

Wilson is a 4-year-old Newfoundland who weighs 160 pounds.

“Therapy dogs are often small,” Habenschuss said. “The great thing about Wilson is that you don’t have to bend down to pet him. He’s a perfect height for people in wheelchairs, and he’s big enough to hug. Patients like to hug Wilson, and he’s happy to let them.”

Habenschuss and Wilson usually visit Memorial’s behavioral health unit. Patients who wish to visit with Wilson gather in the activity room, where they are encouraged to talk about their pets.

“Helping people make that connection with others and talking about their own dogs and cats helps them,” Habenschuss said. “It’s rewarding for me, and I like to think that Wilson enjoys our visits with patients, too.”

Certifying your pet

Therapy animals are special. Most healthcare facilities and schools require a pet to be trained and certified as a pet therapy animal in order to visit.

After undergoing training specific to the healthcare setting at Capitol Canine in Chatham, Wilson was tested by the American Kennel Club and earned his Good Citizen certificate from the AKC. He was then “interviewed” by Memorial, and received an ID badge as any other volunteer does – complete with his name and instructions for what to do in case of fire.

Learn more about what you can do

Do you know someone who may benefit from a pet therapy visit? Would your dog (or pet) make a good pet therapy animal?