Going to the Dogs: How Animal-Assisted Therapy Benefits Patients

Every pet owner knows the joy that comes from owning a loving pet. Bringing that pet to a hospital or rehabilitation center can bring joy and love to patients, too, along with therapeutic benefits.

Julie Miller, RN, BSN, CCRN, has been volunteering in animal-assisted therapy since 1994. She is the president and founder of PAWS to Learn, her nursing education organization, which allows Julie to incorporate her passion and knowledge of animal-assisted therapy with her teaching experience to empower those at the bedside to meet patient needs. Julie is also the staff development educator for critical care at Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler, Texas.

More than 17 years ago, a friend suggested that Julie’s yellow Labrador would be well suited to animal-assisted therapy. Julie was skeptical but agreed to give it a try. She and her dog went through obedience training and then began volunteering at a rehabilitation hospital. “Essentially, my dog was another modality that patients could use in therapy,” she explains. “The occupational therapist worked with the patient, but used my dog as an aid in therapeutic exercises—for example, if a patient had a stroke and needed to build arm strength or balance, the therapist might have the patient throw a ball to my dog or brush my dog.”

Today, Julie also takes her two therapy dogs into acute care settings, including the ICU, at Mother Frances Hospital, which was one of the first hospitals in the area to allow animals onto the units.

Pet Benefits

It’s generally agreed that petting an animal lowers blood pressure and releases endorphins. But animal-assisted therapy offers many other benefits as well. Sometimes an animal can motivate a patient or elicit a response in ways a human cannot.

Julie has seen some remarkable outcomes. “We had a patient who was in a coma and not responding to any commands,” she recalls. “The patient’s family told us that she loved animals, so we brought in a dog and laid it on her bed. I took the patient’s hand and stroked the dog. Within a few minutes, the patient began stroking the dog.”

Julie had one patient tell her that the only way she made it through open-heart surgery was because she had a therapy dog visit her and remind her that she had to survive surgery to take care of her own animals.

What It Takes

Therapy pets need to be obedient, well socialized and, of course, have a gentle temperament. Obedience training and skills instructions are recommended. The pet must be tested to be sure that it will interact safely with patients. Animals must also have up-to-date vaccinations and carry insurance through a certifying organization. The certification process takes about a year.

But the effort pays off. Animal-assisted therapy can have a lasting impact on patients and volunteers alike. “I had family members tell us that when their sister was dying from cancer 10 years ago, therapy animals visited her and they still remember it as the only bright spot for their sister,” Julie remembers. “I thought ‘Wow,’ what an impression we made if they remember that visit 10 years later.”

More information about animal-assisted therapy is available at www.therapet.org.

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