The health benefits of Animal Facilitated Therapy

Pet_therapyHere is an article I wrote in 2005 about the Animal Facilitated Therapy program at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital at which I am the Director of Neuropsychological and Psychological Services.  It is accompanied by a couple dozen photographs of patient interactions with the animals.  They are priceless but I cannot seem to find their final resting place on one of my back-up drives.  Perhaps one day I will publish them on these pages.   Animal facilitated therapy has immeasurable benefits in psychological well being of rehabilitation patients.  To this day Lily remains on the job – nine years after I first wrote this paper.  To this day the gift Lily brings our patients helps the critical shift they make from feeling sick to feeling well again – hopeful to regain thier independence and go on to life.      Michael Sefton, 2014

The DOGS ARE IN THE HOUSE: Listen for the jangle of tags

The jangle of tags can be heard along with the patter of feet at the start of rounds this day.  Owner/handler Peg Walcott of Hudson, MA receives the list of new patients who are referred for Animal Facilitated Therapy.  AFT is a program at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA that matches patients undergoing physical rehabilitation with volunteer animals who are trained to do what comes naturally for man’s best friend.  “I have never seen anyone who won’t smile when the dogs walk in the room” said Peg Walcott, who trained Otto and Willie, a handsome pair of Schnauzers.  Otto has been visiting Whittier for nearly 4 years.

The cacophony of sound and smell create a distinctive din on the nursing unit. The animals seem unaffected by the ruckus as they begin. Somewhere a patient laughs.  Bells can be heard calling for nurses who frequently stop and welcome the animals on their way.  People plod to and from the therapy gym where patients’ toil and regain independence after stroke or fracture or some other calamity.

Pet therapy is not a new idea.  Amanda Hatfield, M.A. is a Recreational Therapist at Whittier.  Her sparkling blue eyes radiate enthusiasm for the dogs and their therapeutic benefit in hospital treatment.  She treats patients using animals 4 days a week seemingly immune from the drudgery many feel in their jobs.  “I grew up in a rural area and have been around animals all my life” says Amanda exuberantly.  She works closely with the newest member of the AFT program.

 Lily is a 2-year old chocolate lab who stands 2 feet tall at the shoulder.  Her owner Lynn Keeley brings Lily to the hospital most mornings.  Lynn understands the good that Lily brings to patient outcomes even though finding the measure of this may be difficult.

Lily sits patiently waiting while Amanda and I talk one day.  She is unlike any Labrador retriever I have ever met — unruffled.  Lily recently passed the certification test to be added to the therapy team at Whittier.  Like Otto and his nephew Willie, Lily is a lustrous animal who moves with confidence – impervious.  She stands while I reach to pet her burnished coat seeming to know what I’m feeling today.

“Dogs are unconditionally accepting of people” instructed Amanda.   It makes no difference to them if someone has an amputation or is paralyzed or has cancer.  She believes animals are intrinsically motivating to patients and utilizes the specially trained dogs to target physical weakness, motivation and improve personal functioning.  But in her eyes she knows they do so much more.

“Animals are great companions.  They make people happy” reflects Peg Walcott who guides Otto and Willie from room to room.  She first observed the therapeutic value of animals when her husband was a patient at Whittier in 2001.  “Everyone seems to benefit from it too — even staff members.  I’ve been telling people that it’s their job to go around and make people happy” remarked Peg while on rounds at the hospital.  The dogs enjoy their work and offer unconditional approval and warmth.

“They get real excited when I pull in the driveway – they know why they’re here” said Peg as I prance behind.  “There was this one woman who had a reputation of being kind of grouchy, she took one look at Otto and said “uh, he’s ugly”.  But she ended up patting him and she got a big smile on her face, sat up, and was great” recalled Peg with a pensive, clear vision.

Patients seem to agree. “It picks up your spirit – it really does. I need this. I can’t have this when I go home so, I need this very much” replied an unmarried woman undergoing therapy following knee surgery.

“Do you have dogs?”  I ask.

“No, I used to but he died and I never replaced him.  It has been 5 years now.  You get attached to the one dog and then something happens and you usually get another one to fill the void but it’s never the same.  At least I found it that way” she mused.

“What did you think about these dogs?”  I say after Otto and Willie move on.

“It was nice. It let me think about my dog.  I had a lot of fun with my dog.  She was a black lab.  She was a good pup”.  Her voice trailed off.

Most patients find the animal visit soothing – and invariably conjure memories of childhood pets.  Better times perhaps?  Some become sad and cry when visiting the animals as memories from their past emerge on the radar of their consciousness.

Recently a woman politely declined an audience with the regal-looking Schnauzers.  She admitted that she loved dogs but they reminded her of her own pet that was given away when she was 8 years old.   Surprised, I learned the dog was given away following the death of her father over 60 years before.  The pain and loss associated with his death was palpable even today.

Animal Facilitated Therapy is used in schools, hospitals and nursing homes throughout America and provides comfort from the stress of hospitalization or debility.  Peg Walcott was invited to bring her Schnauzers to a local hospice for patients suffering with terminal illness.  It is well known that people heal faster when their emotional needs are met.  Animals have the capacity to provide for people in need without judgment or prejudice.  They accept when you are sick.

Most patients do not expect to become hospitalized and normally experience feelings of vulnerability when they do.  Pets remind us of home and help calm stressed-out people suffering with pain, fear and emotional loss while in the hospital.  Studies show that having a pet lowers blood pressure – even enhances marital satisfaction.  AFT is being used with children who need practice reading and those afflicted with cancer or mental retardation.  It can positively impact healing through enhanced autoimmune functioning and reduces feelings of depression and loneliness for patients undergoing mental health treatment.

Meanwhile, the animals move through the hallways of the small hospital with poise as they encounter wheelchairs, crutches, and patients unable to move.  They seem curious of each.  What comes next is a slow dance – unchoreographed.

Not all dogs will meet the rigorous standard necessary to become a therapy dog.  Some dogs are too friendly, some are easily spooked, some unpredictable.  Therapy Dog’s International founded in 1976 in New Jersey offers some guidelines for readers who wonder whether their pet may have missed his calling.  Peg Walcott learned about the therapy dog program while Otto attended obedience school and has been at it ever since.

All dogs must be tested and evaluated by a Certified TDI Evaluator. A dog must be a minimum of one year of age and have a sound temperament. Next, each dog must pass the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test, and a temperament evaluation for suitability to become a Therapy Dog. The test will also demonstrate the evaluation of the dog’s behavior around people with the use of some type of service equipment (wheelchairs, crutches, etc.).

For now, Lily stands on guard waiting for what happens next.  It is a balance group.  Here she walks quietly beside patients as they navigate an obstacle course –afterward each person has the chance to brush and offer Lily snacks.  Most just lightly stroke Lily’s head.  Whether she knows it or not she has made people smile and feel something good inside.  Today she has finished her work and is tired.

Patients will improve after stroke or surgery without help.  But rehabilitation is known to enhance recovery and restore function and is more efficient than simply waiting it out in bed.  Animal Facilitated Therapy offers an added benefit by working on the “whole” person.  It does so by meeting the emotional needs of individuals through contact most humans seldom impart at a time when they need it most.

As the resplendent pair of Schnauzers concludes their mission, Peg Walcott feels a personal satisfaction that comes from seeing human beings brighten when Otto and Willie stop by.  In her mind there is no one who cannot profit from AFT.  So as they leave, Otto and Willie accept a parting delicacy from conditioned staffers and the jangling of tags fade again for another day and the smiles left behind begin the real work of healing.

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

April 29, 2005


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