Elmo, PTD  (pet therapy dog)Getting involved in a Pet Therapy Program is very rewarding. We have been taking our Miniature Horses to our local Personal Care Home for summer visits for many years but in Manitoba, it is not feasible to do this year round. During these visits we brought along our little dogs as well.  Most seniors have had horses and dogs over the years and it is a joy for us to see their faces light up when they can touch, smell and interact with our pets. When the Facility decided to start a Pet Therapy Program we were delighted to have our small dog "Elmo" become a regular participant. He is very sociable and many residents look forward to his visits. We now refer to him as Elmo, P.T. (pet therapist) Since I wrote this article, our little Elmo has gone to Rainbow Bridge and is missed very much by many, but I will leave it here for those interested in learning about Pet Therapy Programs.

I will try to give you an idea of what is involved in a Pet Therapy Program and who knows, perhaps you will want to participate at a facility near you.

As our population ages it is becoming increasingly obvious that the most serious ailment for the elderly is not heart disease or cancer, but loneliness. Love and companionship are seen as two of the most important factors for remaining in good emotional, physical and mental health.

Any domestic animal may be suitable for visits but presently dogs are the most common. Analysis of programs has shown that patients who receive regular visits from a pet are more receptive to treatment. Depressed residents who were unwilling to work to regain lost skills resulting from a stroke are much more co-operative when therapy involves stroking a pet. Pets encourage both love and acceptance, which affects self-esteem. Improved self-esteem may give a patient the incentive to recover and the will to live.

Pet visitation programs in nursing homes have led to increased self-care activity and mobility among the resident population. Those who have Alzheimer's disease may feel lonely and emotionally isolated, but a pet loves people unconditionally. For those who cannot or choose not to speak, petting and holding an animal is a gratifying experience. Pets make it easier for strangers to talk. They often help begin a conversation between a resident and a volunteer that may make the resident feel better just knowing someone is there solely to listen.

Pet therapy has two visiting formats. It may involve group interaction or be on a one-to-one basis. Both formats consist of similar activities, but differ in the amount of time spent with each participant and the intensity level. Elmo and I have the freedom to move about the building to visit residents wherever they may be, in their rooms or with a group in the lounge areas, which enables residents who are in poorer physical condition or those have limited mobility to participate.

Some of the benefits of pet therapy are:

Creates a family atmosphere
Provides companionship and affection
Increases self-care activities
Helps alleviate stress, anxiety, loneliness and depression
Is a good source of entertainment
Increases mobility
May increase motivation
Is a source of laughter and conversation
Provides a diversion from troubling thoughts
Encourages exercise
Aids in relaxation
Decreases blood pressure
May increase responsiveness to therapy
Restores self-concept
Increases awareness in the cognitively impaired
Decreases social withdrawal  

To be accepted as a therapy dog, the dog must complete the following elements:
Accepts a friendly stranger
Good appearance and grooming
Able to walk on a loose leash
Capable of walking through a crowd, including wheelchairs
Ability to sit down and stay on command
Sits politely for petting
Calms quickly after becoming excited
Reacts appropriately to other animals
Doesn't  become distracted by noise, smells, etc.

They also will:
Enjoy meeting strangers
Show interest in unusual events but calm down quickly
Be reliable around other dogs, animals and people
Feel comfortable amidst unfamiliar sights and sounds
Trust and have confidence in his/her handler

The most important aspect of pet therapy is that the people whom the animal visits must be absolutely safe from the animal. Pets must be forgiving of accidental or intentional incidents. It is the handler's job to prevent injury to both the pet and the person being visited.

For many of us, our pets are considered members of our families. For some elderly persons, a pet may be the only family they have. It is obvious that there are many benefits to using animals as part of a therapeutic team to help treat and care for the needs of an elderly population.  



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Marilyn & George Peters
Box 565
Steinbach,  Manitoba
R5G 1M4


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