These days, therapy dogs and cats are often brought into health care facilities to help boost their health and happiness of people suffering from mental and physical illnesses or disabilities.
The results are often so amazing, they are almost inexplicable. I vividly remember, Laura, a patient from many years ago. She was a sweet old lady, who was deaf, dumb and blind and had recently been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Following surgery, in a strange hospital environment she seemed to be lost in her world of diminished senses, and appeared to be giving up. She wasn’t eating, or drinking. IV fluids were keeping her alive and diamorphine was keeping her pain free. Anticipating she didn’t have much longer to live, I called the next of kin listed in her records and spoke to her sister. The younger sibling, who lived half-way around the country, agreed to come but asked if she could bring Laura’s service dog. At the time, this was unheard of on a surgical unit and would certainly have been frowned upon by hospital authorities. Never one to follow the rules, and a self-confessed animal lover, I immediately agreed. I’d deal with the consequences later if need be.
A few days later, Grace arrived on the ward with Honey, a calm and happy Golden Labrador. Without any directions, Honey led Grace straight to Laura’s bed and laid her big head on her mistresses’ frail outstretched arm. Laura’s eyes opened, she sat up, and began talking to the dog.
This wasn’t a miracle in the conventional sense, the dog had not restored the power of speech, it turned out that Laura, while blind, could hear and speak perfectly well. However, separated from her faithful companion, she’d become profoundly depressed, and simply stopped communicating.
Honey stayed in the hospital for several weeks, barely leaving Laura’s bedside, until they were both ready to go home. During those weeks, other patients benefitted from Honey’s presence too. Even the medical and nursing staff even seemed to be cheerier as they went about their work. So not a conventional miracle, but one of the closest things I’ve ever seen to one.
Did I get into trouble for harboring and concealing a canine? Sure! Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!
Therapy animal programs are designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, or cognitive function, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Therapy can occur in a group setting or individually, and can benefit patient populations from the young to elderly, to those in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living homes and rehabilitation facilities.
So, I was more than a little curious when I read that Providence Children’s Center in Oregon is employing two unique therapy animals to help patients smile: an alpaca named Napoleon, and a llama named Rojo. The unique pair light up every room they enter at the hospital.
“I never realized the power animals have to bring healing and joy to people like this,” said Kelly Schmidt, a social worker at the Children’s Center. “I truly believe they are given a purpose more than just entertainment.”
Rojo is an “old pro” at making children happier. From the day he was born in April of 2002, Rojo has enjoyed being around people of all ages. His owner, Lori Gregory, of Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas in Vancouver, WA along with handler, Shannon Hendrickson, trained Rojo and entered him in local and state level fairs in the Public Relations and Handler Classes. While at the fair, a spectator observed Rojo’s exceptionally gentle temperament, and suggested that he become certified as a therapy animal. The rest, as they say, was history. Rojo even has his own Facebook page!
Gregory, just like the patients, feels a rush when she introduces her animals – which are often dressed in funny hats and other silly outfits – at hospitals and other medical facilities. “When you realize that they have this amazing ability to create a natural response therapeutic-wise to get people to do things they normally wouldn’t do.”
Her stable also includes two other llamas and two more alpacas. On its website, Mtn Peaks says its animals have made more than 650 therapeutic visits to patients since the organization was founded in 2007. They add “Our Therapy Teams might take a walk with an adolescent struggling with difficult issues, or motivate a patient recovering from a stroke to reach farther, or calm a child with autism so that they can focus, and achieve new goals. By offering friendship and warm touch, our llamas help alleviate loneliness, lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Their presence brings a sense of normalcy to institutional settings.
In researching this post, I also came across other unique therapy animals including miniature horses, elephants (which have been used in Thailand to help some children with autism), helper monkeys and animals with disabilities.
Have you worked with or been helped by therapy animals? If so we’d love to hear from you and share your stories.