Years ago, healthcare facilities had only occasional therapy dog visits, but nowadays these furry innovators are in high demand and many more institutions want to integrate animal-assisted therapy into their practices and daily activities. Caregivers and researchers have noticed patients with vastly different needs seem to gravitate to the adjunct therapy, whether animal-assisted therapy (AAT) or animal-assisted activity (AAA).
The program at Phoenix Children's Hospital in Phoenix, started nearly 20 years ago with volunteers and their pets visiting patients for socialization, or AAA. When they received grant funds to expand the program, the focus shifted to AAT with planned, documented and evaluated therapeutic goals. The revamped program started with only three volunteer therapy teams, but now it's a full-time job for Mary Lou Jennings, MC, BS, certified licensed professional counselor and certified substance abuse counselor. She is coordinator of the facility's Animal Assisted Therapy Program, working with 45 teams and up to six teams each day.
"The idea was to really focus all of our therapy animals on treatment goals with patients," Jennings said. "The one thing that seems to work best is having an animal present. Whatever it is that you are having trouble accomplishing, you can do better when you bring an animal into the situation."
Jennings trains the volunteer teams and escorts to focus on therapeutic outcomes and is careful to tailor each visit to the patient's needs.
"If I know that we have a patient [who has been bitten by a dog] . we send a dog that is really calm, quiet and very small," she said. "If we have a teenager who is really unhappy and . he has a particular connection with poodles, I schedule the poodles to go see him."
Facilities looking for a more structured form of AAT might consider investing in a facility dog like Scully, a highly trained service animal who works at WakeMed Rehab Hospital, Raleigh, N.C. His handler, Elizabeth Penny, LRT/CTRS, licensed/certified recreation therapist, uses Scully three hours a day to help improve her patients' therapeutic outcomes such as memory, mobility, sequencing and balance, to name a few.
"Once I had him work with a patient who loved to walk his dog," Penny said. "The patient had a stroke and was working on balance. After practicing with Scully, we went to his house, got his dog and walked to a pet store to buy a new leash to make him safer with his dog, all while working on the same skills we had worked on in therapy."
Penny also uses Scully to educate patients on the benefits of owning a service dog. She can demonstrate the myriad tasks a service dog like Scully can do for people such as open doors and drawers, retrieve items from the floor and push buttons.
For many facilities, a more traditional pet therapy program like the one at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Hershey, Pa., works best. Years ago, Jeanne Beckley, patient care secretary, MICU, and coordinator of the hospital's pet therapy program, started a trial program in two units, and since then it has expanded to nearly the entire hospital and several outpatient centers such as dialysis, infusion therapy, adult and children's eating disorder clinics, and cardiac rehab. And some centers can't get enough.
"The infusion therapy clinic in our Cancer Institute had contacted us about having pet therapy dogs in their waiting room one day a week," Beckley said. "Now they are requesting to have it twice a week. Some of the patients only want to have appointments on Fridays when they know the pet therapy dogs are going to be there."
No Judgment Zone
After retiring her certified therapy dog, Skyler, Jen Schurman, activity director, Gateway Senior Living, Lincoln, Neb., got creative in meeting the residents' needs while waiting for the new therapy dog, Belle, to finish training. A friend had donated a miniature silky goat named Gigi to the pet therapy program, and Schurman decided to give it a try. After a few months of training, Gigi made her debut.
"The residents just gravitated to her," Schurman said.
Whether it's working with a goat like Gigi or a more traditional therapy dog, Schurman knows it's more about using the resources you have to meet the patients' needs than the species. Schurman also emphasized one of the most important benefits of pet therapy in long-term care: judgment-free love.
"Patients try harder with the animal because the animal has no judgment," Schurman explained. "So they don't care if your hands shake, they don't care if you cannot find your words, they don't care if you have any words at all. They read what the patient needs."
Although it's hard to say no to the wagging tails and warm laps, animals always bring challenges and facilities looking to invest in this therapy should plan carefully. Large programs should consider hiring a full-time coordinator to ensure patients, staff and volunteers stay safe-and every program should be prepared for growth.
Big or small, pet therapy programs should start with structure, Beckley stressed. Before initiating Penn State Hershey Medical Center's program, Beckley was part of a committee that wrote a strict policy with input from various areas like infection control and security.
"If you don't have the structure and you don't have a policy in place, I think you are opening yourself up to a Pandora's box," Beckley said. "But because we do have that structure, it helps eliminate anything that might happen that might be considered a drawback."
"While animals are far more than 'tools' in therapy, their innate natures are often ideally suited to promote therapeutic disclosures and to enhance therapeutic progress," Penny said. "Animals provide genuineness, unconditional positive regard and empathy freely and without judgment, in a manner that human counselors can only strive to achieve."
It may take some work to set up a pet therapy program properly, but once in place, the program is sure to make a huge difference for patients and staff alike.
"I have been at Penn State Hershey for 40 years and I hope I am remembered for the pet therapy because it is so amazing," Beckley concluded. "What it has done, not just for the patients but for everyone-from the housekeeping staff to the doctors, nurses, to anyone who comes in contact with those dogs while they are in the hospital, you see smiles and their faces just light up."
For many programs, the smiles and warmed hearts are no longer the sole purpose of working with animals. With carefully planned therapies and a strong program structure, therapy animals have proven themselves to be a huge benefit for caregivers who incorporate them into practice, and they can produce significant therapeutic results for even the toughest patients.
Rebecca Hepp is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact: RHepp@advanceweb.com