When I mention that I am a pet therapist, people imagine cats and dogs reclined on my couch while I listen to their problems. While that sounds like an appealing way to spend my days, I am actually referring to a different type of pet therapy.
My golden retriever, Casper, and I are a certified pet therapy team. We were licensed by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs after completing a six-week training program, followed by several supervised hands-on visits. As a dog team, we visit nursing homes, special needs programs, veteran’s organizations, college campuses, hospitals, schools and libraries. Our mission is to share Casper’s unconditional love with those in need, thereby brightening their lives.
Clinical studies have proven that animals help people heal. Therapy dogs provide comfort to those who are ill, anxious and disabled. Simply petting, touching or talking to animals can improve physical health and emotional well-being. Interacting with a friendly pet can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It can also accelerate the release of endorphins which produces a calming effect and literally soothes the brain, resulting in an increased ability to learn and interact with others.
Pet therapy can also help children with learning difficulties. For such children, it can be extremely stressful to try to read, write or participate in an intellectual activity that does not come naturally. Often a child who is unsure of him/herself will relax and read to a dog, who is non-judgmental. This enables the child to gain the necessary self-confidence to keep practicing their reading. Our handlers act as the catalyst between the dog and child.
Likewise, therapy dogs can help children and adults with special needs to engage in social interactions. Casper & I regularly visit a daycare facility for adults with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities. The facility offers programs to help patients live fuller lives with “opportunities for learning, working and loving,” with pet therapy being one of the patients’ favorite activities. Each time we visit, I am awed by Casper’s impact on the patients. Just minutes after petting or snuggling Casper, fearful and confused faces light up with smiles and peaceful serenity. At one point during last week’s visit, two patients grinned broadly as they sandwiched Casper, simultaneously kissing his head and rubbing his chest.
Another important benefit of pet therapy involves stress relief. Each semester, we visit college campuses during exam weeks for “de-stress days.” Students stop by in between studying and exams to pet and snuggle the dogs, which helps students relax and recharge their batteries. Despite the rigors of exam week, many look forward to their campus de-stress days all year long! We run similar programs for employees in corporate offices.
In preparation for a pet therapy visit, I tie a special Red Cross bandana around Casper’s neck and pack his bag with treats and water. Casper instinctively knows that when he’s wearing his red bandana it is ‘time to go to work.’ And he is always up for the task! Being a good pet therapy team requires that I remain calm and focused (as Casper takes his cue from my demeanor,) so we can save our energy and empathy for those we are serving. The work is physically and emotionally challenging– and sometimes exhausting (see post-therapy nap photo below)– yet equally rewarding and fulfilling.
It is empowering to know that Casper and I can positively impact the human spirit. And, it is especially poignant that Casper– a rescue dog who came to us off the streets of Istanbul, Turkey and who, himself, was given a new lease on life– is now ‘paying it forward’ and helping others to live a fuller, happier life.