For many of us, playing with a dog is the ultimate pick-me-up when feeling blue. Stroke their fur, toss a ball or just give them a hug. You can’t help but smile. It’s almost involuntary.
For well over a decade, we have offered a dog therapy program at for the very same reason: playing with dogs can help our patients feel better. But even more than that, with their unconditional love and complete acceptance, pet therapy dogs can help patients heal. It’s not an overstatement to say that there are real, tangible therapeutic benefits derived from our pet therapy program.
Our dogs and handlers — the people who tag along on the other end of the leash — are certified through the Good Dog Foundation. Each handler also becomes a trained Silver Hill Hospital volunteer. The owners ensure that their dogs are up to date with their immunizations and have an annual veterinary exam.
These volunteer dogs are household pets and number over 20 strong. The run the gamut in size from Newfoundland to Yorkie. It doesn’t matter if they are big or small, a purebred, mutt from the pound or a rescue dog. The only thing that matters is that they have the right temperament: calm, loving, and without any disciplinary problems.
The dogs come twice a week and get all dressed up for the occasion. By that we mean they wear a bright orange and aqua blue Good Dog Foundation bandana around their necks. The tiny dogs may wear a vest instead. Not only does this “uniform” identify them on the grounds, it always draws an “Ah, that’s cute!” The owners also report that when the vest or bandana goes on, it is a signal to their pets that they are about to make a visit to Silver Hill. This is important because some volunteer at other another hospital, school or nursing care facility.
Dog therapy is one of several volunteer-led patient enrichment programs at Silver Hill. Each dog therapy session lasts 30 minutes. The dog teams, supervised by a Silver Hill staff member, visit 2-3 patient care units on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The patients often wish the dogs could stay longer each time, but the dogs get tired after “working” for an hour or so. It isn’t unusual for some to look up at their owners as if to say, “Can I go home now and take a nap?”
A typical dog therapy day
Dog therapy is all about socialization for our patients. A typical session goes something like this:
Patients, perhaps adolescents, sit on the floor next to the dog — if they want. The handler will check to be sure the dog is comfortable and not overwhelmed. Brushing or petting the dog is a good, calm way to begin. After that, the patients may read aloud to the dog, play roll-a-ball or even have the dog do a few tricks.
The dogs are very perceptive. They remember the room or even some people by their own unique scent, which delights everyone. They nuzzle up and put their heads waiting laps. Soon patients realize the dog feels safe and implicitly trusts them — and this is when the barriers begin to fall. Patients often make great strides after visiting with the dogs.
There are several organizations that certify individuals and their dogs in pet therapy. The Good Dog Foundation is one. Bideawee, Delta Society, and Therapy Dogs International are others. All are well-recognized organizations. Many school districts, hospitals and nursing homes have pet therapy programs. Volunteers choose a facility where they and their dogs are most comfortable. The rewards are many and not just for your dog, for the humans too. By sharing their pets, pet therapy volunteers can make a tremendous difference in the life of someone who really needs it.
At the end of each session, our patients are less stressed, more relaxed and happier. And what about the dogs? They often contentedly fall asleep on the car ride home.
Manager, Volunteer Services
Silver Hill Hospital
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