When a physical therapist at St. Alexius Hospital asked Liz Aurbach to bring her dog, Tommy, into a patient’s room, she wasn’t expecting great results. The patient had been non-responsive to all other therapy attempts. However, when Aurbach set the little Cairn Terrier onto the bed, the patient woke up and began brushing and petting him. “A month later, the physical therapist told me that patient perked right up and starting doing rehab and was out of there in two weeks,” says Aurbach, therapy dog coordinator at C.H.A.M.P. Assistance Dogs. “It was pretty dramatic.”

    Nonprofit pet therapy programs allow animals and their owners to make a difference in people’s lives every day. From hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, to schools and nursing homes, the presence of a pet—often a dog—can make an impact. “Pets distract you from whatever’s on your mind. People are focused on their problems, but then you bring a dog in and it changes the situation,” Aurbach says.

    Various local pet therapy programs operate through teams of volunteers and their animals. Dogs are evaluated for their temperament and then entered into a thorough training program with their handler. “We look for a dog who enjoys being touched, interacts well with people, and is confident in new settings,” says Bill Dahlkamp, executive director of Support Dogs Inc., which has about 270 pet therapy teams in its TOUCH program. “The training program works on obedience, patient scenarios and etiquette in a facility. We try to prepare the teams for any situation.”

        Teams then go to facilities around St. Louis where the dog’s role can range from a simple visit to participation in physical and occupational therapy—playing fetch or walking with the patients. “It’s a good motivator for people to do their rehab,” says Dahlkamp, whose German Shepherd, Madison, has been a therapy dog for more than five years.

    The happy and calming presence of an animal can be especially beneficial for children in different situations. While visits are used as rewards for good conduct at behavioral facilities, they also are uplifting reminders of home for children during long stays in the hospital, Dahlkamp notes. “And we’ve found that the facility staff and family members benefit, too. They are dealing with these situations day in and day out, and the dogs are a nice break for them.”

    At schools, pet therapy teams assist in reading groups, where a dog is an unbiased ear for children struggling to read. “They’ll sit down next to Tommy the dog and read to him. While kids may have a hard time reading to a teacher or adult, they don’t mind reading to a dog,” Aurbach says.

    That lack of judgment is particularly important for special needs students who “may feel like they are not accepted,” says Paul Flotron, founder of Noah’s Ark Animal Lovers Group. “But animals transcend any differences and accept everyone—it’s an unconditional love.”

    While the majority of animals involved in pet therapy are dogs, Flotron’s group also incorporates other pets, including his two parrots, Dudley and Sing-Sing, and rabbits and guinea pigs. Most of their work focuses on nursing homes. “We reach out to the elderly—often a neglected population—and build new friendships,” Flotron says.

    Pet therapy at nursing homes often involves interaction with dementia and Alzheimer patients, where human-canine bond is evident. “We find these dogs act as a bridge to the type of person they used to be,” Dahlkamp explains. “They can’t tell you what happened five minutes ago, but they can tell you every detail of the dog they had 60 years ago.”

    With waiting lists for facilities that want to incorporate pet therapy into their programs, more human-animal volunteers are always in demand.

    “There are studies showing that there are medical benefits to pet therapy—it lowers your blood pressure, raises your spirits,” Aurbach says. “Anyone who is willing to have an animal around can benefit from it.”  LN