Published Therapy Dog Articles

The Miami Herald ‘Living Arts section’

July 9, 1992


MAN’S BEST FRIEND…and more  

 By Tananarive Due – Herald Staff Writer

Her arthritis feels like fire today, she says, but Skippy Reid is smiling and laughing girlishly only moments before her eyes mist with tears.  She’s not sad, really; the dog visiting her room just brings back memories.

Her dog, Boozer, had cancer and Reid had to put him to sleep.  She keeps his photograph on her bulletin board at the Hampton Court Nursing Center in North Dade.

“They gave him a needle.  I said, ‘Give me a kiss,’ and he did, and then he was gone,” remembers Reid, 70, cupping the furry face of the visiting Mandy, snuggling beside her on the bed, like an old friend.  Reid laughs through her tears.

Mandy’s owner is Jana Thomas, a volunteer who brings the Australian shepherd to visit the center every other week.  But Mandy’s affection belongs to Reid and any of the other 100-plus residents who want to stroke a memory.

As more and more research shows the therapeutic benefit of having animals around, therapy pets are becoming a growing phenomenon at nursing homes, hospitals, schools and prisons nationwide.  In fact, more than half of the country’s nursing homes are using pets and volunteers.

To spread the gospel in South Florida, a national non-profit organization called the Delta Society is sponsoring four days of workshops in Miami to educate South Florida health professionals and pet owners who want to volunteer.  The sessions, which begin Friday at the Miami-Dade Community College Medical Center Campus, include animal personality tests and training to prepare volunteers for social or therapeutic animal visits.  Participants will learn how to join therapy programs.

Social animals, which have less training, are simply companions who visit.  Therapy animals, usually dogs, respond to commands such as “snuggle” or “kiss” and learn skills such as how to dodge or pull wheelchairs.

“The therapy dogs are very special.  That’s one of the reasons we’re going to have a workshop,” says Richard Dillman, a retired veterinarian who works with a Dade elementary school program that brings animals to children.  He is one of the workshop’s organizers.

“Our biggest concern is that it’s not exploited, with people going in to make money without following the guidelines.  Many people can call themselves therapists when they’re not doing therapy because they don’t understand.”

Study backed pet therapy

The Delta Society, with its mission to bring pets and humans together, commissioned a 1990 UCLA study that found that elderly people have fewer doctor visits when they’re bonded to a pet.  Heart attack patients who go home to their pets survive longer, another study says.  And pets reduce stress.

The benefits of animals extend beyond the home.  A disabled child who isn’t physically active might wrestle with a dog.  When patients with disabilities go riding, horses can elicit physical responses from their muscles.  A speech therapy patient who doesn’t speak much might happily chat to a visiting puppy.

“All of these are really good reasons why people are beginning to take another look at how important animals are in our lives” says Linda Hines, executive director of the Delta Society, based in the Seattle area.

“Doctors would laugh at this maybe five years ago, but now they’re prescribing,” says Judy Gammonley, a Clearwater nurse practitioner who is one of the presenters.  A volunteer network there touches 75 nursing homes and hospitals.  “The benefits are primarily social, physical.  People move around better.  You can also have emotional benefits.”

Dr. Scott Tannenbaum, who is certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation, says pet therapy is more than an emotional boost to patients he treats at Bon Secours Hospital in North Dade:  “You give someone a brush, they can groom the dog.  What you can accomplish is better motor control of a hand.  Or, walking a dog, if they have balance problems, it helps them pace.”

Memorial program expanding

At Memorial Hospital in Hollywood, dogs have visited the pediatric ward for more than a year, and the hospital recently expanded the pet therapy to the rehabilitation unit and nursing home.

Elizabeth Hanson, a pediatric nurse/clinician at Memorial, says the dogs give sick children something to think about besides their illness.  Physicians were skeptical at first, Hanson says, but more and more have authorized the weekly visits from the dogs, who wear photo identification tags.

Thomas, a Pembroke Pines dog obedience instructor, takes 14-month old Mandy and 10-year old Toasty, a Shetland sheepdog, to Hampton Court in North Dade once every other week.

“I just love seeing their faces light up,” says Thomas, who will conduct the personality tests scheduled Sunday to determine which pets have suitable temperaments for therapy.

Not just for dogs

Cats, rabbits, birds and even pot-bellied pigs are welcome, but Thomas warns owners not to bring just any Fido or Fluffy with a collar and four paws.  Animals must be clean, clipped and free of parasites, have rabies certification and be well trained.  Smaller animals must come in carriers and with towels to clean up after them.  Animals must be at least a year old.

For cats, says Thomas, an indicator of the right temperament is whether the cat will stay in a stranger’s lap for five minutes while the owner is out of sight.  That’s one of the tests she’ll give Sunday.

“Not every dog may be suitable,” Dillman says.  “It may be as simple as a big old dog who loves everyone, but he wags his tail too hard.”

At Hampton Court, the dogs’ training is evident.  Even in hallways where wheelchairs may back into them, Thomas’ dogs are not easily startled.  They recognize residents and greet them, but they are trained not to bark or jump up on them.

Ellen Singer, activities director at Hampton Court, says the dogs’ visits help patients.  “It’s almost like they talk to the animals and not to the people.  When they see the dogs, the dogs, they become a lot more animated,” Singer says.

Animals help at risk students

Dillman, the vet, has introduced at-risk schoolchildren to animals since 1987, when he took 15 children to visit livestock at the Miami Agricultural School for therapy.  Now, Dade’s Animal Companion Science Program has expanded to involve 270 at-risk children from 18 elementary schools.  The students – considered at risk for dropping out – visit goats, horses, sheep and cows at a farm at Amelia Earhart Park in Dade.

“By the end of the year, it goes from children who won’t even speak to you to children who come off the buss and hug you,” Dillman says.

The same children who were skittish around dogs or the farm’s 1,300-pound steer, Bumper, soon learn the confidence to groom animals, bottle-feed orphaned calves or become trained to take dogs  to nursing homes like Fair Havens in Miami Springs.

Or Hampton Court, where Thomas and her dogs are so eagerly awaited.

Paul Glickman is 95 and confined to a wheelchair at Hampton Court.  He shrugs about his health.  “When you’re 95, you’re 95,” he says.

He spends much of his time reading and watching television.  Except when the dogs come.

Kneading Toasty’s ears, he remembers another time 40 years ago, when he was younger and living on Ocean Parkway.  His dog Ricky was so smart.  He always knew when it was 8 o’clock and time for Glickman to buy ice cream.

“It reminds me of my own dog,” Glickman says. “You love them so much, it’s like a part of the family.”