Creatures of comfort: Animal therapy bonds lead to life changing rewards

Glancing at Lily, an adorably fuzzy seven-year-old Shih Tzu with enormous chocolate eyes, one would never guess that only three years ago, she had been lying in a cage in Canada—unwanted and unloved.

Yet that’s exactly where Lily was. Jerri Loberg had been helping to overnight rescue dogs from the southern United States when she first met Lily. Having lived her entire four years in a puppy mill, Lily was on her way to a dog auction in Canada.

“Lily was in really bad condition when I first saw her,” Loberg said. “She was blind in one eye, had only five teeth left, and one leg was broken and never got set properly.”

Though Loberg instantly fell in love with Lily, by the next morning, she had to send her off to Canada as planned. For weeks, Loberg wondered about the dog’s fate. No longer able to deal with the uncertainty, she called Lily’s auctioneer.

No one wanted Lily. Families with children complained that injuries prevented her from playing, and the elderly decided that it was too expensive to raise a dog with so many health problems. Upon hearing about Lily’s loneliness, Loberg immediately adopted the Shih Tzu.

“I really thought she wasn’t going to make it at first,” Loberg said. “I mean, she wouldn’t even drink water. It was pretty bad.”

As a result of Lily’s poor health, Loberg brought the dog to work with her at Brooklyn Center High School, where she serves as the principal’s secretary. To Loberg’s surprise, when Brooklyn Center high schoolers heard of the puppy with the soulful brown eyes, they immediately flocked to visit.

They cooed over her silky brown fur and smiled whenever Lily looked up. Lily’s condition began to improve as she made new friends, and in no time, more and more students and teachers were dropping by Loberg’s office whenever they were stressed to pet or talk to Lily.

“It got to the point where Lifetouch even took a picture of Lily for the yearbook,” Loberg said, laughing. “Everybody loved her. But then (the school) told us that Lily had to become a registered therapy animal or else she couldn’t come anymore.”

Road to registration

And so began Lily and Loberg’s mission to serve as a therapy team.

Registration to become an official therapy animal is no simple feat. For a dog to become registered with Pet Partners, a national therapy animal organization, the dog and its handler must first pass through puppy kindergarten, two levels of obedience training, the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) obedience test, a therapy animal simulation class, a four hour online test, and then another obedience and simulation test.

Patti Anderson, a therapy animal trainer for the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, teaches a weekly class for dogs that want to become registered through Pet Partners. She conducts the final obedience and simulation test, as well.

Her class, which Lily and Loberg are taking, simulates real-life situations for therapy animals and their handlers to practice. Some of the simulations include teaching handler-dog teams how to properly enter bathrooms and elevators, calmly interact with homeless children and greet patients in wheelchairs so all parties remain comfortable.

“I think of (this class) as a sampler. People don’t really know from start to finish what they want to do with dogs. It might be an eye-opener that their dog really doesn’t like sitting down and reading with a kid. The dog might get kind of antsy and want more action. They wouldn’t know until they tried it,” Anderson said.

“But the unique thing about Pet Partners’ (classes and tests) is that when I evaluate, I evaluate 50 percent of the handler and 50 percent of the dog, or the animal. (Handlers) have to do all of the training. I just facilitate information for them to go home, but I don’t physically train their dog.”

Following the 10-week course, animals of all species and their handlers have to take an online test and pass a 20-exercise-long evaluation. Interestingly enough, the test is almost exactly the same for all species.

“They’re the same exercises but modified for different species. I mean, you don’t have guinea pigs heel,” Anderson said.

“After the test, I talk with (handlers) and ask them what they want to do. Some of them join a club, like Animal Ambassadors. Their main focus is nursing homes or those dogs at the airports … Then North Star Therapy Animals, which is mainly dogs, is everywhere doing everything, like health clinics or eating disorder clinics.”

Helping at hospitals

Nicole Lindstrom has been an occupational therapist at St. Paul Children’s Hospital for 11 years. In 2003, she started an animal-assisted therapy program called Pets Assisting With Healing (PAWH) at the Children’s Hospital. Her interest stemmed from dolphin human therapy in Key Largo, Fla.—and the astronomical expense involved.

“It was extremely expensive, and as I was there, I felt bad that children didn’t have the option to continue this kind of therapy when they went home,” Lindstrom said. “When I returned to Minnesota to start working at the Children’s Hospital, I really wanted to start an AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) program.”

Lindstrom created the PAWH program to use a therapy dog during occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy. With help from the infection control team at the hospital, she agreed on guidelines—making sure that dogs trimmed their nails, bathed within 24 hours of the therapy session, remained on bed sheets, and other health precautions.

The program began with one animal team. Today, there are 30 teams volunteering at Children’s Hospital.

“I pick the therapy dog and handler based on a few things,” said Lindstrom, who only allows animal teams registered with Pet Partners since they re-evaluate every two years. “I base it on the child first. Does the child like big or little dogs? Hairy or less hair? Does the child need the type of personality of a dog that’s calm or active?”

While personality and appearance are important in choosing animal teams, another crucial factor is which species serves the best purpose.

Dogs are the only species that can read human faces, making them the number one animal choice for therapy, Anderson said. Their grasp of expressions and moods allows them to be sensitive to the needs of therapy patients who often seek comfort.

Right, top: Therapy dogs provide a boost to patients and staff as part of an animal therapy program called Pets Assisting With Healing (PAWH) at St. Paul Children’s Hospital. Bottom: Lily, a seven-year-old Shih Tzu, allows a volunteer to pet her during animal therapy training at the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley.

Motivational power

Lindstrom can vouch for the healing powers of therapy animals. One of her patients is an 8-year-old girl who suffered a stroke last year—which left the right side of her body weaker than the left, leading to poor balance.

It was difficult for the child to walk without a cane or walker, and she couldn’t dress herself or go to her normal classroom. Lindstrom also observed that it was difficult for her to speak clearly and use both hands to complete tasks.

Because the girl was frustrated and not particularly motivated during therapy sessions, Lindstrom opted to use a therapy dog. Almost immediately, the girl gained motivation. Whether throwing a ball, dressing the dog in various costumes to improve her motor skills, or brushing the dog’s teeth to learn how to use both hands, she completed each exercise cheerfully and confidently.

Now, three months after working with the dog, Lindstrom’s patient can speak clearly, walk without a cane or walker, use both hands to complete tasks and attend her regular classroom. She’s even trying out for the swim team.

“Every single child that I have worked with (is) incredibly motivated during the therapy sessions when the dog is there. But about two months or so later, that child bonds to the handler, and the handler is a very important part of the therapy session,” Lindstrom said.

“They see the handler as equally important as the dog. It’s incredibly rewarding for the volunteer that comes in. They see that they (are making) an incredible difference in that child’s life.”

How to help

Animal-handler teams often volunteer for their entire lifetimes due to the satisfaction of interacting with therapy patients. Dogs, for example, live for an average of 11 years, but smaller dogs can live for much longer. Of course, some animals stop earlier, too.

“A good handler will see when an animal isn’t interested anymore. I mean, grandma and grandpa don’t like going down the slide anymore. Same with dogs,” said Patti Anderson, a therapy animal trainer for the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley.

As therapy animals become more popular—popping up everywhere from college campuses during finals week to veterans’ hospitals and nursing homes—animals are often needed to meet demand.

To learn more about volunteer opportunities or becoming a therapy animal-handler team, visit www.petpartners.org or www.northstartherapyanimals.org.

Our primary commenting system uses Facebook logins. If you wish to comment without having a Facebook account, please create an account on this site and log in first. If you are already a registered user, just scroll up to the log in box in the right hand column and log in.