Therapy dogs bring smiles to patients

LAKEWOOD - It has long been established that close contact with animals can have a therapeutic effect on humans.Whether a patient is ill, has a life-threatening disease, a disabling condition, or just feeling a little stressed, a small dose of animal therapy can go a long way. Studies have shown that physical contact with a pet can lower high blood pressure and improve survival rates for heart attack victims. Because of these proven benefits, Lakewood Regional Medical Center has announced the launching of an animal-assisted therapy program for its patients. Animal-assisted therapy uses trained animals and handlers to help patients achieve specific physical, social, cognitive and emotional goals. "Many skills can be learned or improved with the assistance of a therapy animal," said Vikki Puffer, coordinator of the hospital's animal therapy program. "Patient rehabilitation can be encouraged by such activities as walking or running with a dog, or throwing objects for the animal to retrieve while fine motor skills may be developed by petting, grooming or feeding the animal." The benefits of animal contact also get more specific when dealing with patients with other problems. Animals pay no attention to age, physical disability or emotional dysfunction. They accept people as they are, making them the ideal therapy companion for the mentally or physically disabled. The emotional benefits from animals are difficult to measure, says Cindy Bryant, pet therapist of Therapy Dogs International. What experts know, however, is that animals allow humans to focus, even for a short period of time, on something other than themselves. According to Bryant, therapy dogs have been specially trained to interact with all types of patients. "It takes a certain type of dog to do this work and not all dogs qualify," Bryant said. "Besides their behavior being evaluated, the dog's health status must be cleared by a veterinarian and all their shots kept current." Once the dogs are cleared for training they go through a rigorous program, along with their handlers, to learn to adapt to a variety of environments, including multiple types of equipment, various sounds and different types of patients. Every patient is evaluated separately to see if they are appropriate for the dog to visit. Dogs currently visit Lakewood Regional "a couple times a month." "We would love for them to visit at least weekly but the demand for these dogs is very high and they are already booked at several hospitals," said Jodi Hein, chief nurse officer at Lakewood Regional. "Therapy Dogs International is in the process of training more dogs to keep up with the demand, so hopefully soon we will see our furry friends on a more frequent basis."

********** Published: July 31, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 15