Animal Assisted Therapy

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dog therapist
It is all by design that the lobby of Birmingham’s Children’s Hospital features colorful artwork and youthful regalia. While it is a serious institution that offers medical attention to those in need, it also tries to put the happiest face on some pretty grievous circumstances.

And what could be happier than a tail-wagging, nose-sniffing, paw-peddling canine? While it is Rover or Spot to you and me, it is a helpful four-legged tool for the kids in the psychiatric ward.

That’s where Molly – a therapy dog from Birmingham’s Hand in Paw organization — spends two Thursdays a month.

“Molly loves it!”

On the other end of Molly’s leash is Lois Scott, who’s had the four-year old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel since she was a puppy.

“When I get her scarf out to put on her, and I put my shirt on that says Hand In Paw, she knows we’re coming here. And she knows all the people as we come in the hospital and she’s anxious to greet everyone and she looks forward to spending the day with the children.”

Hand-in-Paw uses animals – mostly dogs and a few cats – to help people recover, to solicit a smiling face or a long-needed laugh from sick patients.

Lately, Molly’s been working the psych unit at Children’s. And her visit could be critical to the treatment there.

A study by the American Psychiatric Association compared the anxiety levels of hospitalized psych patients treated conventionally – and those that received animal-assisted therapy. Convention treatment only helped people suffering from mood disorders… but animal therapy reduced the stress of patients with all sorts of psychiatric problems.

“To me, it’s vital…”

Occupational Therapist Lisa Trentham works with teenagers diagnosed with everything from anxiety and mood disorders to autism, depression, mania or bipolar. She sees first hand the impact of pet therapy.

“To me – I look so much forward to pet therapy. When they come that day, I almost have a load off of me, because it’s hard to work in this environment. These kids are sad; they’re depressed. And some of them have really hard lives. And I want you know you want to take them home. To be able to bring… it’s like we’re bringing a gift… when we’re bringing the pets in. You know, they get to visit, to laugh and to play. And it’s just… wonderful.”

They’re non-judgmental, they accept you no-matter… if you have a bad hair day or what’s going on with you. They don’t see disabilities; they see possibilities.”

Beth Franklin is executive director of Hand in Paw.

“If you’re having a bad day, an animal can normally detect that, and they’ll come up and paw you or put their head on your lap.”

We couldn’t tape Molly at the psych unit for obvious privacy reasons. But if her performance in the lobby is any indication, she must also be quite the hit upstairs.

On this day, Molly also has a canine companion, Polo – a ten-year old cocker spaniel who also patiently and, er, pantingly, awaits his turn. Together, they command an audience among kids in the lobby like a couple of Hall of Famers signing baseball cards. They haven’t even gotten to work and they’re already batting a thousand!

The children Molly and Polo will see are 2- to 18-years old. Because each child’s condition is different and because they sometimes cannot control their behavior, the dogs must be prepared for anything.

Marie Hill is a pet partner evaluator for Hand in Paw.

“…tolerance is one of the biggest things we’re looking for in the animals that we choose. When it comes to visiting psychiatric units in particular, there’s obviously an unpredictability there. It’s once again, incredibly important that these dogs are very very tolerant of anything that might happen.”

Therapy dogs can be just about any size or breed. They must also undergo a rigorous six-month process of obedience training, a five-week evaluation period and adhere to standards set by the Delta Society, a national organization for animal-assisted therapy. They have to be clean, infection-free and immunized against all disease.

But not only do the therapy animals have to be prepared before they meet the patients, the patients have to be ready for the animals. Some of the children in the psychiatric unit – about a quarter of them — have abused animals in the past. So therapists are charged to teach them well before the visit the consequences of animal cruelty.

They have lessons on how to take care of animals and how that care correlates with self-care. They even have a video that goes into detail about animal cruelty and what the signs are.

Animal abuse is a red flag for occupational therapist Deek Cunningham. often times, he says, if a child tries to hurt or kill an animal, it’s an indication that he or she has also been abused.

“…we get a history and physical of every child that gets on the unit – and when that’s said in the history that they have been abusive to an animal, that makes me think that I need to start asking questions in appropriate ways to see what has happened to them in their life or what they have witnessed – whether it be domestic violence or them being physically abused or sexually abused.”

Cunningham and other therapists say most times the children who abuse animals are just acting out the things that’ve been done to them, or what they’d like to do to someone else.

That’s why they say it’s so important that children learn about respect for other living things. By being with and touching and talking to an animal, they say it helps them adjust to dealing with other people. People the children sometimes think will do them harm, or people they don’t know at all.

And that’s the frustration for some therapists like Lisa Trentham: that there are so many animals… and so many kids with psychological problems. Getting them together – with all the safe boundaries in tact – can’t happen enough.

“I would love to have it every week. I think it would be great. ‘Cause the kids when they come when they have it they’ll be like ‘when do we have it again?’ ‘when do we have it again?’ And I’m like, not for two or three more weeks and it’s like ‘I’ll be gone by then…’ We even have kids that want to stay longer just so that they can see these animals again. And you don’t want them to stay on the psych unit longer. But that lets me know the motivation that these kids have when they’re around these pets.”