These special animals help provide company and four-legged love to the elderly and infirm.
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Every week, the elderly residents at the Buena Vista Care Center eagerly await the arrival of their favorite visitor, a six-year-old Lhasa apso named junior.Four years ago, junior was relinquished to the Santa Barbara Humane Society after his guardian could no longer care for him. Because of junior's small size and confident, friendly nature, the facility's dog trainer believed he would make an ideal therapy dog. Maia Mook, the organization's humane educator, agreed and began taking Junior with her on school visits. He became the Humane Society's official mascot and soon began visiting schools and nursing homes with Maia and other volunteers on a regular basis.
Since the mid-1980s, the Santa Barbara Humane Society's pet-assisted therapy program has given animal lovers in this seaside community the opportunity to take a pre-screened adoption dog or other small animal on visits to local nursing homes. The residents love the interaction with the dogs and the dogs gain valuable social skills, thereby making them more adoptable.
"All our adoption dogs arc evaluated and approved by our dog trainer before they are allowed to go Out With a volunteer to a nursing home," says Mook. "Each dog goes through a temperament test and a full health check, and is up-to-date on all vaccities. B taking the time to evaluate each dog, we prevent any type of problem before it happens."
How Dogs Help
Like Junior, therapy dogs across the country help increase the morale of patients in nursing homes, hospitals and mental health facilities and help teach schoolchildren how to be more compassionate to animals. The dogs offer unconditional love and trust, which promotes both physical and emotional healing. Dogs can also help:
• Decrease stress and anxiety;
• Improve communication between patient and staff;
• Lower blood pressure;
• Alleviate feelings of worthlessness and depression;
• Improve mental and physical abilities; Increase emotional well-being;
• Improve quality of life.
Mook witnesses firsthand the positive impact Junior has on the residents during their visits together. "Junior brings a smile to everyone's face," she says. "The residents love seeing him. The elderly are often very lonely because they don't have friends or family members who visit. We become their extended family."
Mook encourages anyone who loves animals and is looking for an opportunity to volunteer to consider pet assisted therapy. "We have a waiting list of facilities that would like to have a visit from a pet," she says. "The residents really miss their pets because they had to give them up when their health deteriorated or they can't have a pet in the care facility where they live," she says. "They may have had pets all their lives and they miss the companionship. That's the void our program fills - that is the real need."
Does your dog have what it takes to be a therapy animal? He'll have to be professionally evaluated before getting the job.
Your Dog As A Therapy Animal
Programs such as the one offered by the Santa Barbara Humane Society allow volunteers who either don't have a dog of their own or have one who doesn't meet the criteria for therapy work (see sidebar), an opportunity to become involved with pet-assisted therapy. Other individuals may be interested in volunteering with their own well-behaved, social dog. Many care facilities require visiting dogs and other animals to be certified through a national organization such as Delta Society or Therapy Dogs International. The certification process guarantees that the animal has passed a series of health and temperament tests.
Delta Society certifies a variety of animals as "pet partners," such as cats, dogs, horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, domesticated rats and even potbellied pigs.
Therapy Dogs International (TDI) specializes in certifying all types of dogs, both purebred and mixed breed. To date, TDI has over 14,000 registered therapy dogs and approximately 10,865 certified handlers throughout the United States and Canada. TDI certifies therapy dogs like Mr. Jo-Jo, a 12-year-old Beagle that belongs to Stephanie Morris Girton. Mr. Jo-Jo enjoyed a rewarding career as a therapy pet before retiring earlier this year. Stephanie, who has volunteered her time with various pet-assisted therapy programs for more than ten years, says of their work together, "Helping others, sharing a love of pets, and having a respect for the sanctity of life that's what pet therapy is all about."