The Healing Power of Therapy Dogs

by Kristina
Rolfes
August 2, 2013
Animal Assisted Therapy program uses specially trained dogs to enhance therapy.

Occupational therapist Lisa Rones works with Destiny Fallas to improve movement in her arm with the help of therapy dog Mattilda.When Stephanie Cooper Greenberg visits the children on Kennedy Krieger’s inpatient unit with her Dalmatian therapy dog, Mattilda, she gets to experience something magical. She has seen first-hand the natural bond that exists between children and dogs, and it can serve as a powerful motivator for therapy. Greenberg will never forget the time when a boy with a severe traumatic brain injury, who up until then had been non-responsive, reached out his hand for the first time to pet Mattilda.

Greenberg and her dog are one of six therapy dog teams that comprise the Animal Assisted Therapy program at the Institute, offered through the Child Life and Therapeutic Recreation department. In animal assisted therapy, dogs interact with patients during traditional therapy—behavioral, occupational, recreational, speech, and physical—to help them achieve their therapy goals. A child with a brain injury may have difficulty moving an arm, but if she is given the opportunity to pet a therapy dog, she may move it without thinking. Or if the therapy goal is to learn to use a wheelchair, a child may be motivated to move across the room to get closer to a dog. For children with physical, behavioral, or communication difficulties, dogs can be the bridge that helps them overcome these challenges.

Aside from being a powerful motivator, the presence of a dog can lift children’s moods and give them something to focus on outside of themselves, according to Sherry Fisher, coordinator of the program. Research has long established that being around animals can lower blood pressure and provide stress relief. A dog can help bring a sense of well-being to children in the inpatient unit. “They also offer a social component for children hesitant to socialize, because the animals help them feel comfortable,” explains Fisher. “It’s unconditional love and unconditional acceptance.”

When the children see the dogs, their eyes light up and their emotions shift. “We’ve seen smiles on children who really aren’t interacting with anyone around them at the time,” says Fisher. One patient spoke for the first time during therapy in response to a dog, and another child with difficulty moving rolled over for the first time so she could show the dog.

“I feel privileged just to be part of this program because it’s just a magical thing that happens between these animals and the patients,” Fisher says.

Animals can be used in therapy for any patient on the inpatient unit who requests it. Therapists make sure children have no fears or allergies, and ask for parental permission. The handler is always present with the dog and the therapist, and helps position or command the dog according to the specific therapy. Greenberg is modest about her own role as a handler. “I just show up and let the magic happen between the child and the dog.”

Therapy dogs can be any size and any breed, but must go through a rigorous training and screening process through accredited, insured training programs like FIDOS For Freedom or National Capital Therapy Dogs. The dogs must be well behaved, mellow, and friendly around children. Dogs must also be trained to be comfortable around medical equipment and hospital settings.

Patient Paul Roman-Leon shares a special moment with Chesapeake Bay retriever LewisAnimal assisted therapy is just one component of several pet therapy offerings at the Institute. Dog teams have been visiting patients in the inpatient unit since 2009, bringing a little bit of joy and emotional support to patients after a long day of therapy. And the READ (Reading Education Assistance Dog) program, in which dogs and their handlers visit libraries in Kennedy Krieger School Programs to help children who struggle with reading, is now in its fourth year. Kids who are normally hesitant to read out loud feel more comfortable reading in front of a dog. And most recently, the Institute introduced a new animal to its therapy team: a miniature horse named Colt that makes visits to the inpatient lobby.

For the handlers who volunteer their time and their animals, seeing the difference an animal can make is beyond rewarding. “As dog owners, we know how much happiness our dogs bring us, and there is no greater joy than sharing our dogs with others, especially children with disabilities,” Greenberg says.

The local CBS affiliate featured the story of Austin Ervin, who was helped in his recovery at Kennedy Krieger Institute by therapy dogs.