Healing with Therapy Animals

Who’s a good dog? Melanie Paul may have finally found the answer to an age-old question. A photograph of Melanie’s first certified therapy dog, Shiloh, hangs over the kitchen table of her home in Hampton. Shiloh, a sweet-faced Shetland Sheepdog, began making visits to those in need of “creature comfort” in 2000. Though Shiloh has gone on to greener pastures, three other Shelties are now helping Melanie carry on his legacy of spreading joy at hospitals and schools around Hampton.

Therapy animals provide not only emotional support but mental and even physical rehabilitation for patients in hospitals, vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and people with disabilities. Here are three women whose dedicated work with therapy animals great and small helps heal people from all walks of life.

 

FOUR-LEGGED COMFORT

Melanie Paul lost her hearing at age 12 and is completely deaf, but she’s never let that stop her. She holds three degrees, including a Masters in Counseling, and retired after 30 years of working for the Virginia Department of Education. Over the past fifteen years or so Melanie has started multiple animal-assisted therapy programs. She and her dogs visit both Sentara Hospital in Hampton and Langley Air Force Base weekly.  “My favorite thing is bringing my dogs into a patient’s room and seeing their faces just light up,” Melanie says.

As we sit at her kitchen table with her three Shelties lying at our feet, Melanie focuses on the dogs’ accomplishments. She credits them with brightening the lives of those they visit: “My dogs are the ones who perform the magic. I just help them do it.”

Melanie’s dogs are, indeed, accomplished. Molly, the oldest at 12 years, is the “spokesdog” for the Hampton Clean City Commission and was awarded the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association Animal Hero Award in 2011. The VVMA honors one animal a year with this award, and in 2017 it went to another of Melanie’s dogs, Lothair, an unusual snow-white Sheltie who is also deaf. He understands an impressive 22 words and commands in American Sign Language.

According to Melanie, Lothair’s deafness allows him to truly bond with patients who have disabilities, especially deaf children. “It makes me proud, seeing how happy my dogs make people,” she says. “All of them are special.”

They’re also well trained. All three of Melanie’s dogs have been certified and insured through Therapy Dogs International since age one. According to their website, TDI is an organization that regulates, tests, and registers therapy dogs. In order to become certified, each dog undergoes at least 13 different tests meant to evaluate temperament, obedience, and ability to handle unfamiliar environments and people. Once certified, the newly-minted therapy dog is able to visit people in hospitals, who often cherish the comfort a four-legged visitor can provide.

“Something great always happens when I take my dogs on visits,” Melanie confirms. Lothair and Locksley, both 9 years old, have over 700 documented therapy visits each. Molly has a whopping 808, and they show no signs of slowing down.

Melanie says the program at Langley Air Force Base is probably what she’s most proud of. She recalls one visit to the Children’s Center with Lothair, where a 3-year-old girl sitting in a wheelchair wanted to pet him. The girl’s mother excitedly confided that this was the first time her daughter had ever shown any interest in a dog. Then, as Melanie and Lothair moved away, something amazing happened.

The little girl got out of her wheelchair and walked determinedly towards Lothair. “He turned his head and was watching her,” Melanie says, tearing up. “She walked over to him and put her arms around him.  She was only this big—.” Melanie holds her hand knee-high, around eye level for the inquisitive Lothair, who pads towards us for a scratch. “It was really remarkable,” Melanie says as she pets Lothair’s silky white coat. Bending down towards the cheerfully panting Sheltie, Melanie signs to him as she speaks. “Good boy, Lothair!”

 

PUPPY LOVING

Going to the dentist is no one’s favorite pastime, but for patients who are intellectually or developmentally disabled, a visit to the dentist’s office often requires sedation and can be truly traumatic. “The harsh lights, loud sounds, strange people…these are not places they want to go,” explains Caren Cajares, DNP, CRNA. “They come in expecting to have to fight for their lives.”

With 25 years of experience in nursing, including with the US Army, Caren has been focusing on special-needs dental patients for several years. “The traditional model is to ‘hold them down,” she says. “What we’re trying to do is meet you as you are.” What’s one way to accomplish this? According to Caren’s doctoral research at ODU: therapy dogs.

Caren brought four certified therapy dogs and their handlers to the Dream Center, a dental sedation clinic in Virginia Beach. “It was my mentor who suggested it,” Caren explains. “She knew how much I love dogs and how passionate I am about the special needs community, so she said, ‘Why not combine that?’”

It’s an unusual topic for doctoral research, and Caren wasn’t sure ODU’s Internal Review Board would give her the green light. Happily, it was approved. Caren and her fellow researchers asked for consent from her patients’ caretakers to measure their anxiety levels before and after meeting a therapy dog in the waiting room. The results were paw-sitive, so to speak.

“Our goal is to foster a relationship, and the dog helps to do that…There’s a sense of protection, I think, which helps take away the need to fight back,” Caren says of her patients’ reactions. That sense of protection helps calm patients who are mistrustful of people and decreases the amount of time they’re under sedation, which is better for both the patient’s health and wallet.

Caren remembers one woman who seemed very interested in the therapy dog visiting that day. “We took her back to prepare her for anesthesia, and she suddenly asked us, ‘Are you my friend?’ in this clear voice. In her chart it said non-verbal. No one knew she could speak. We said, ‘Yes, yes, we’re your friends!’” Caren recalls. When the team asked her caregiver about it, she said, “Oh, she only talks around people she trusts.” This patient had visited the Dream Center dozens of times previously, but that was the first time she’d met a therapy dog. Caren describes it as a profound moment: “We were just amazed. Not only can she speak, she speaks clearly.”

Not just any pup can be brought into a clinical setting. Like Melanie’s Shelties, the four dogs used in Caren’s research were all certified through TDI. It can be hard to rope a good therapy dog. Many have already been snagged by hospitals and nursing homes for a regular rotation of visits. That’s why Caren and her family, including her teenage step-daughter with autism, have just added Opie to their ranks. Opie, a curly-haired Goldendoodle with a calm temperament, is on his way to TDI certification and will soon be a regular at the Dream Center.

For now, though, the clinic is in between therapy dogs,  much to the disappointment of many patients. “A lot of people, well, usually the caretakers, call and ask, ‘When will the dog be there? Can we come in when the dog is there?’” Caren says. But the patients aren’t the only ones who enjoy having a dog around. The staff miss taking breaks from what can be a high-stress job for some puppy loving. It puts the whole office in a good mood. “Everyone benefits,” says Caren.

 

RECENTER WITH HORSES

Equi-Kids is a therapeutic riding center in Virginia Beach, but the name can be a bit misleading. “We work with kids of all ages,” says Interim Executive Director Stacy Rogers with a laugh. Ranging in age from 3 to 84 years, many Equi-Kids clients have mental and physical disabilities. A team of physical therapists, occupational therapists, mental health providers, and certified instructors help ensure that each client’s physical, psychological, emotional, and intellectual needs are met.

For those who have difficulty walking, riding a horse helps strengthen and stretch muscles that aren’t often used. For others, forming a bond with a horse can mean experiencing a profound connection with another living being for the first time. “Every person who comes here has the opportunity to ride, regardless of what they’re trying to overcome,” Stacy emphasizes.

For Stacy, who began at Equi-Kids as a volunteer in 2016, working there has been like returning full circle. She grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. After working in government contracting in DC, specializing in homeland security following 9/11,  Stacy moved to the Tidewater area. When she saw the spacious pastures and well-groomed horses grazing near Sandbridge Road, she was thrilled. “I hadn’t had the opportunity to work with the horse community for a long time,” she says.

Now working more on the business side of Equi-Kids, Stacy stresses the importance of the non-profit’s staff and the hundreds of volunteers who come in weekly. “It takes a team,” Stacy says. “We have a beautiful community here, where every single person has a part to play.”

In the indoor arena visible through the window of Stacy’s office, three riders cautiously raise their arms overhead as their mounts continue walking at a stately pace. An instructor encourages from the ground. The current session is part of the Equi-Vets program, which, as the name suggests, focuses on veterans, many of whom suffer from PTSD. According to an article published in the Journal of Occupational Therapy last year, equine-assisted therapy is a promising method of treating PTSD symptoms.

Stacy recounts the story of a vet who’s been with the program for years and occasionally shows up at the barn unannounced. “He’ll share that he’s having a tough time, and he needed to come back and recenter with the horses,” Stacy says. It’s about building trust, and the horses have a lot to do with that process.

According to Stacy, horses are such successful therapy animals because of their extreme sensitivity to their rider’s needs. She remembers one horse who stopped without warning in the middle of a session. Turns out, the rider was in the early stages of a seizure, so early that there were no signs visible to the naked eye. The horse sensed the oncoming seizure and stopped to protect the rider from a fall. “It’s incredible,” Stacy says.

The hooved therapy team at Equi-Kids ranges from ex-police horses to tiny ponies to a mule named Jill. All have undergone a thorough on-boarding process to ensure they meet rigorous safety standards. But it’s not just the animals that are impressive, and it’s not just the clients who benefit. “Every single one of our riders is so inspiring. Every day, I experience something that helps remind me why we are here,” Stacy says, misty-eyed. “What they don’t realize is that they are actually giving to us.” 

For more information:

Therapy Dogs International - www.tdi-dog.org

Equi-Kids - www.equikids.org

Susan Deutsch is a Norfolk native, studying at Middlebury College in Vermont. She’s looking forward to spending spring

 

semester studying creative writing at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

 

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