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VOL. 126 | NO. 152 | Friday, August 05, 2011

Canine Comfort

Therapy dogs provide physical, emotional benefits to patients of all ages

By Aisling Maki

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A wet nosed-kiss, a gentle nuzzle and the wag of a happy tail can go a long way to brighten anyone’s day, but it’s especially true for people facing serious physical and emotional challenges.

Mid-South Therapy Dogs Cooper, left, and Tank visit with patient Andrew Kurrus at Baptist Rehabilitation-Germantown. 
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The health benefits of spending time with companion animals include a decrease in blood pressure and cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as decreased feelings of loneliness and increased opportunities for exercise and socializing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And people who work with dogs and other therapy animals know four-legged friends can provide a calming, reassuring presence for patients receiving care in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes and hospices.

“If someone is in rehab after double knee-replacement surgery, and is having trouble getting that extra bit of motivation to get up and out of the wheelchair – which is painful – we bring the dog in on a leash,” said Mary Ehrhart, director of Mid-South Therapy Dogs and Friends, a nonprofit group that provides animal-assisted therapy programs in Memphis and the surrounding area.

“The dog sort of takes away some of that pain and provides extra motivation for them. They just take that moment to work a little bit harder than they normally would if they were just there with the therapist.”

“Not all medicine comes in a bottle” is the motto of Mid-South Therapy Dogs. For more than a decade, the all-volunteer organization’s human-animal teams have been bringing comfort and joy to residents at local facilities such as Baptist Rehabilitation-Germantown; Methodist Le Bonheur Hospice; Page Robbins Adult Day Care Center in Collierville; and Ronald McDonald House of Memphis.

The group also visits with grieving children at Baptist Memorial Health Care’s Camp Good Grief.

“It’s unbelievable how the children will relate to the animal because they’re so disengaged from everything else,” Ehrhart said. “The animal doesn’t ask questions or require anything. It just gives unconditional love. Sometimes they’ll just take long walks and tell the dog all their secrets.”

Jo Anne Fusco is co-founder of another group, the recently launched West Tennessee Therapy Dogs, whose teams visit facilities such as Ave Maria Nursing Home, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Temple Israel.

Her dog Kicker has become something of a celebrity in the world of therapy animals. The 10-year-old golden retriever has made three appearances on NBC’s “The Today Show,” was honored for his therapy work during the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City, and is the only dog ever nominated as St. Jude’s Volunteer of the Year.

Mid-South Therapy Dog Tank visits with patient Cantrell Jones at Baptist Rehabilitation - Germantown. The nonprofit organization uses animal-assisted therapy to foster social, emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual and psychological changes.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“To have a dog comfort you, especially for children in hospitals, it just takes their mind off of what’s happening,” Fusco said. “At St. Jude, the kids have dogs they’ve left at home and they miss their animals. They see the dogs and they come running down the hall and it just brings smiles to their faces.”

Fusco said one of her proudest moments with Kicker came when the dog’s presence made a huge difference in the recovery of a very young girl whose legs had been badly burned.

“She was in a lot of pain,” Fusco said. “She had skin grafts on her leg and was afraid to try to walk. She took Kicker’s leash, put her feet on the floor, and she ended up walking.”

Although golden retrievers, known for their mellow dispositions, are widely used as therapy dogs, Ehrhart said breed and age are not determinants (although dogs are required to be at least a year old, but older animals are welcome).

Mid-South Therapy Dogs includes many breeds, and at one point had a three-legged amputee dog that had been used as dog-fighting “bait” and discarded in a trash bin. That dog went on to work mostly with veterans who were also amputees.

Animal-assisted therapeutic interactions are serious business, and dogs and their handlers must be very skilled, knowledgeable and well-trained.

Mid-South Therapy Dogs and handlers must meet the rigorous requirements of Delta Society, a national nonprofit dedicated to incorporating therapy, service and companion animals into the lives of those who need them most.

“They know they’ve been through training and the handler knows how to properly interact and know about patient privacy regulations and so on,” Ehrhart said. “It’s pretty involved when you get into the details of what people need to do to get their animal out into the community.”

Mid-South Therapy Dogs added “and Friends” to its title recently when the organization added miniature donkeys named Nestle and Journey and a llama named Pearl to the group. Ehrhart said elderly clients especially enjoy those visits.

“They may not have talked to anyone at the center all day, but the donkey or the llama comes in, and it just sparks a memory and they just tell these incredible funny stories,” she said.

Ehrhart and Fusco both said there’s always a need for more people to get involved in animal therapy, and you don’t necessarily be an animal-owner to volunteer.

Ehrhart said her organization is currently looking to recruit a friendly cat.

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