One of the most gratifying endeavors you can do is to participate in animal-assisted activities. You might change a life for a moment, or even forever. And with that, your life will also be forever changed. April 30 is National Therapy Animal Day.
Pet Partners is a nonprofit that aims to improve human health and well-being through the human-animal bond.
Nearly 40 years since the organization’s inception, the science that proves these benefits has become indisputable. Today, Pet Partners is the nation’s largest and most prestigious nonprofit registering handlers of multiple species as volunteer teams providing animal-assisted interventions.
I’ve seen dogs participating in animal-assisted therapy programs touch people in ways that could only be called miracles.
Let me paint a picture with our dog Lucy. She participated in a program held at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
Here was a teenage gunshot victim learning to walk again, an older woman working hard to come back from a stroke, a young boy recovering from brain surgery, and a young man dealing with a spinal cord injury following an accident. They were joined by professional therapists, family members, and dogs.
Each patient in the room was paired with a dog. Animal-assisted therapy is goal directed by medical professionals, who may suggest tossing a ball to increase arm strength, for example.
We were teamed with the woman who’d had a stroke. For about 40 minutes, she petted Lucy (who was lying on a table at her side), talking on and on about her grandchildren, a recipe for peach pie, her neighbors in Indiana, and the weather. About 30 minutes into the talkfest, my wife, Robin, turned and noticed two physical therapists pointing and looking more than a little surprised.
As the session ended, they approached and pointed out to the patient, “This entire time you were petting the dog with the arm affected by the stroke.”
“I was?” the woman asked, less impressed by that than by Lucy’s soft coat. “She’s so soft and sweet. My cousin once had a dog like this,” she recalled, launching into yet another story.
The therapists later explained that this patient had been so focused on what she thought she couldn’t do, that they’d hit a brick wall and were at a loss about how to advance her therapy. She was depressed, and, most hard to believe, she had been reticent about her personal life. Apparently, she was so distracted by petting Lucy that she naturally began to do what people do around dogs: She let her guard down.
Some stories about animal-assisted therapy dogs are dramatic. Someone who never spoke following a brain injury or some other trauma does so only in the presence of a dog. Someone else is “awakened” from a coma by a barking dog. Other experiences are more low-key, but just as compelling, like ours was that day.
All these years later, the patients and therapists in that room at the Rehab Institute may not recall my name or my wife’s name, but they’re sure to remember the little black-and-white dog named Lucy who made them laugh.
Lucy, who passed away several years ago, is just one of thousands of dogs doing this kind of work, and touching thousands of people in all kinds of circumstances as a result.
At this point, we know that a significant number of these dogs—and sometimes cats, rabbits, horses, and even lamas—are an adjunct to medical therapy.
Therapy dogs and their handlers indeed ought to be celebrated!