Pet therapy gaining respect, admiration

Pam Edwards’ springer spaniel, Lester, visits the basement of Neihardt Hall on Nov. 8 as a stress-relieving surprise for the dorm’s Resident Assistants.

Story and photo by Liz Lachnit, NewsNetNebraska

To illustrate how pet therapy helps people, Marla Wademan often tells the story of an elderly man she once visited in a hospital.

The man had suffered a stroke — and his son was distraught. When the son spotted Wademan and her golden retriever, Kobie, in the hospital hallway, he asked if they could visit his father and then led them into the room. Wademan lifted Kobie onto a chair next to the bed, then took the man’s hand and placed it on Kobie’s back.

The man smiled.

The son told her that was the first time his father had smiled since his stroke.

Wademan, co-president of Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, said that is just one of many examples of the benefits of pet therapy. Supporters say man’s best friend can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, help children read, fix behavioral problems, comfort lonely college students and encourage people to talk.

Pet therapy is a relatively new trend that has increased the past few years in the Omaha and Lincoln areas. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs was established in the area in 2005; Midlands Pet Therapy was established earlier, in 1995, but now has more than 100 members. Other area groups include Lincoln Pet Partners and Angel Dogs at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital.

The reason pet therapy is growing is because it is now respected as a real benefit, said Pam Edwards, who has been involved with pet therapy for almost 12 years.

“By far a majority of hospitals have opened their doors to pet therapy,” she said. “That has really expanded it; they’re recognizing that it really does have merit and can help people.”

BryanLGH has actually been involved with pet therapy for around 15 years, said Ellen Beans, director of volunteer resources. She admitted some hesitancy at first, but pursued the idea at Bryan after meeting with a woman who offered her literature on pet-assisted therapy. After months of negotiation with administrators, Infection Control and Patient Care Services, policies and procedures were put into place to allow pet therapy at Bryan. After starting with one patient care unit at first, the hospital has expanded it to include patient care units in general surgery, geriatrics, pediatrics, mental health and rehab, Beans said.

Edwards, who is involved with Lincoln Pet Partners and takes her springer spaniel, Lester, to BryanLGH, said the hospital has two types of pet therapy. One uses animals as an actual part of medical therapy in which the animals are directly worked into a patient’s rehab with doctors. The other type is what Edwards performs — animal-assisted therapy, which she describes as bringing people joy. This form of pet therapy involves the animals visiting the patients in their rooms for comfort.

“You go in and visit and can tell immediately that you brightened someone’s day, not only patients, but visiting family, nurses, doctors and other staff,” Edwards said.

Hospitals are one of the many places pet therapy dogs visit. Members of the pet therapy groups visit nursing homes, Alzheimer’s/memory support units, mental health facilities, day cares, schools, colleges, libraries, camps and churches. , camp for children with cancer, church service greeters and colleges.

Wademan took Kobie into her classroom when she taught second grade and now takes her to Doane College during finals week as a stress reliever for students there.

“Pet therapy is a great vehicle to get to kids. As far as helping them read, Kobie just sits there and listens to them,” she said.

In another case, Kobie was able to calm down a girl who had threatened suicide, Wademan said. The girl was screaming at police, her principal and her mother at her middle school. When Wademan came into the room, Kobie slowly started inching closer and closer to the girl, and eventually was able to soothe her.

“She was able to work her magic,” she said. “They know exactly what they need to do.”

Pet therapy works for all ages, whether sick or not, Wademan said.

“There is something about a really good therapy dog that can put one’s mind at ease,” she said. “Another thing is that it really does help people to talk.”

One poignant example of this was at Ground Zero, Wademan said. She and Gale Lothrop, co-president of Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, are both trained as crisis response teams, which means they deploy to disasters and crisis situations like hurricanes, tornadoes, school shootings and community accidents.

Lothrop went to New York City after 9/11. She told Wademan that none of the first responders were talking to the mental health workers until they brought dogs in. Once the first responders started petting the dogs, they started talking, which opened the doors for the mental health workers.

Jill Bertsch of Midlands Pet Therapy has similar stories of getting reactions from people who had been unresponsive.

“It might be someone that just barely moves their hand to touch the dog, or even just their eyes straining to the side to look at the dog,” said Bertsch, who has been involved with pet-assisted therapy for 12 years. “Like one lady that had been responding less and less to our visits suddenly was talking to a little Chihuahua and wanted to hold it.”

Bertsch also emphasizes the importance of dogs for students, especially those in college.

“Most people don’t think about how much college students miss their pets,” she said. “They can talk to mom and dad on the phone, but they can’t get that interaction with their pets that they have grown up with and miss so much.”

People involved with pet therapy can’t list many downsides, besides the fact that some people might not like dogs and respond to them. Allergies may also be a problem, but as Wademan noted, more people are usually allergic to cats than dogs.

Pet therapy is relatively easy to get involved in, supporters say. The dog’s personality is more important than its breed, Bertsch said. Anyone who owns a dog that is at least one year old, healthy, friendly and enjoys attention from people it doesn’t know would be eligible to get tested to determine whether they would qualify to make a pet therapy team, she said.

Wademan said she stress to volunteers that it’s not about them as people; they should not get involved with pet therapy to feel important. She said pet therapy is about the dog and what it can offer people.

Edwards and other supporters maintain that it is “magical” and “incredible” what they have seen dogs do for people.

“When I leave the hospital I’ll just look at Lester and say, ‘thank you,’” Edwards said, “because what I’ve seen him do for people in the hospital is a miracle. I thank him for something he doesn’t even know he’s doing, that’s the beauty of it. Dog is God spelled backward; I think there’s a lot of merit to that.”