Therapy Animals

Therapy Animals: Natural Healers

By Diane Petchesky-Buffolino, Senior Communications Specialist, EmblemHealth

When Meghan Dyer, E-Correspondence Representative, EmblemHealth, adopted Jetta, a female mixed-breed puppy from a Syracuse shelter, she never guessed how it would change her life. Meghan was working at a residential facility where an adolescent girl with a strong affinity for animals was being treated. The girl’s therapist, recognizing Jetta’s friendly demeanor, gave Meghan permission to bring Jetta into the facility to meet her.

When Jetta arrived, the emotionally-distressed girl immediately relaxed. It was apparent in her smile, eyes and body language. She became talkative, and the negative behaviors she often exhibited were reduced before, during and after Jetta’s visits. Witnessing these changes stayed with Meghan as she began work on her Master’s degree in Special Education.

In February 2009, the National Institutes of Health published an article examining the value of bringing animals into clinical settings such as hospitals and nursing homes. Those watching animal/patient interactions said improved mood and decreased anxiety in patients were easy to see. One doctor noted, “You can see the difference it makes in so many of these patients when the dog is at their bedside. I think the dogs add a bit of normalcy to a very difficult situation. The dog will sit calmly, and the patient doesn’t have to talk to anyone. They can just pet. I think this helps with some of the suffering.”

Why do animals have such a positive impact in therapeutic settings? Studies have shown that they decrease the human body’s stress response. Animals can stimulate production of oxytocin, otherwise known as the “bliss”, “love” or “bonding” hormone and reduce release of the stress hormone cortisol. In turn, emotional as well as physical changes, including lower blood pressure and heart rate, often occur.

Joan VanDuser, an EmblemHealth Customer Service Representative in our Syracuse office, has experienced this firsthand. During her last hospital stay, Joan had therapy dogs visit her bedside on two different days. “The dogs removed me mentally from the hospital setting,” explained Joan. “They were a connection to “real life”, not a hospital setting where nurses were constantly coming and going. They were a peaceful, quiet, calming influence, and for a brief time it was just me and a dog.”

Animal-assisted therapy visits can take place in a variety of settings including schools and special education centers; hospitals, nursing homes, hospice and Alzheimer’s facilities; group homes; courtrooms; veteran’s centers; and homeless shelters. Animal interactions can range from sitting quietly with a sick or distressed patient, to offering silent encouragement to a child struggling to read, to helping with exercises in physical rehabilitation to comforting crime victims. Pet Partners, the country’s largest animal-assisted therapy program, has registered not only handlers with dogs in their program, but also owners with cats, horses, rabbits, pigs and birds.

In 2016, Jetta proudly received her Canine Good Citizen certificate to prepare her for participation in an animal-assisted therapy program. What’s next on the agenda? Meghan is applying for admission to a professional dog trainer program. She plans to work with shelter dogs and get them ready to be placed into homes with special needs children.