The Therapeutic Power of Pets
By Bill Johnson / May 1, 2015
If you ever watch a sick child in a hospital bed snuggle with a visiting dog, you'll appreciate the value of what that means - the value of pet therapy.
That's why Joan Fink of Coral Springs brings her Maltese Poodle to the pediatric ward at Broward Health Coral Springs, and has done so for 11 years. "Children are scared and need some comfort, and animals can bring it," she says. "Cookie dances and cuddles. She loves people and is constantly getting kisses."
Debbie Correale of Cooper City is also there with her Yorkie named Lexi. "The dogs can help so much to ease a child's fear and pain and trauma," she explains. "I retired from a banking career to do this. The satisfaction is heartwarming."
Dogs patrolling the pediatric ward here is not new. It's been going on for 15 years, and the reason is clear. "Pet therapy provides physical and emotional support for patients and families," points out Caren Bock, the regional manager of children's services at Broward Heath.
The volunteers who bring their pets have emotional stories to tell. Joan Fink remembers Cookie stretching herself on top of a boy in a coma. "The boy raised an arm, put it around the dog, and then his eyes began to flutter as he came out of the coma. People in the room were crying."
They tell of bedridden children who will be coaxed to get up and moving by taking a dog for a walk on a leash or tossing a ball for a pooch to fetch. The dogs can distract a child, diverting attention away from a blood test or IV procedure.
The dogs and their owners in this hospital were trained by the Humane Society's Animal Assisted Therapy program in Broward County. The program coordinates animal visits to more than 100 sites - assisted living facilities, nursing homes, foster care homes and many other locations. Some help just one person, such as a veteran suffering from posttraumatic stress or a disabled child. The Humane Society deploys more than 100 dogs, a few cats and even a dwarf horse.
Public schools benefit from pet therapy in a different way. If it's Friday, it's a school day for Jessie, a white and fluffy Mini Goldendoodle. With her owner, Linda Berindei of Parkland, she trots into Parkland's Riverglades Elementary School with a mission: to help students build confidence in their reading ability. "And it works," Linda asserts.
The two have their own room to meet with small groups of three to five children. Some are shy - or perhaps embarrassed - about reading aloud in class. So here they sit where they can pet Jessie and read to her. "They get very comfortable, and they can gain confidence in their reading."
Friday isn't the only day that Jessie brings a measure of therapeutic benefit to someone. Jessie also sees older friends at Aston Gardens, an assisted living facility in Parkland, where she will happily snuggle with someone on a lobby couch. "You can see the joy on their faces when Jessie visits," Linda says with pride. Jessie sometimes triggers memories and conversation about pets the residents once had. Three dogs usually visit Aston Gardens each week. "They bring unconditional love," declares Allyson Katz, the director of recreation. "Therapy dogs improve the social and emotional well-being of the residents." In nursing homes, the dogs can help relieve loneliness and anxiety and are especially welcome by residents who don't have visitors.
The pet therapy program at Aston Gardens is coordinated by Canine Assisted Therapy, which is headquartered in Oakland Park, and counts 130 dogs of all shapes and sizes on the roster of therapy dogs. And more are needed, according to Executive Director Kathy Leone. "I definitely need more volunteers. There's great demand. We have dozens of facilities waiting for them." The organization holds an orientation for volunteers every month in an effort to expand the service.
Numerous studies show physical and emotional benefits from bonding with an animal. The relationship can lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. Some experts say it can even increase survival rates for heart disease. In general, a therapy dog - as well as other kinds of pets - can lift someone's spirits.
The volunteers who bring their pets to hospitals, nursing homes and schools are doing exactly that - lifting spirits as they help ease loneliness or distract a hospitalized child to ease some pain or anxiety. Each one finds the same reward - faces that light up when their dog goes into the room.
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