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TheraPETS: Pawing at the power of four-footed angels

They may get hair all over the couch, ruin favorite shoes and leave “presents” on expensive sheets, but these furry friends make up for it with their inexplicable power to perform miracles.

Joanna Faber, a Northern Kentucky resident suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS), knows about these miracles firsthand. “Growing up, I always had animals, so I’m an animal lover by nature,” she explains. “I truly think that when you have animals around, they make you feel better.”

And it seemed as if only one thing would make her feel better after being diagnosed with MS in 1991: a basset hound. “I knew it was crazy for someone with MS to get a dog, because you have to walk the dog and constantly be caring for them,” Faber says. “I had heard that with MS, you can’t walk too well, you’re tired, and you mentally decide that you can’t do things. But I promised myself I didn’t want to do that.”

So she said a prayer. She let the Man upstairs know that if He were to bring a basset hound into her life, and if He thought she could take care of it, she would.

That next weekend, she was camping with friends in Corbin, Ky., and she spotted a stray basset hound walking along the side of the road. “I knew it was a message that I shouldn’t be limiting my life just because I have MS,” she recalls.

She immediately took the dog in, named him Nelson and ignored her family’s criticism. They were worried about her decision to get Nelson, Faber says, but they’ve all changed their minds since then.

Today, she walks about a mile a day with Nelson. “And I know for sure I wouldn’t have been able to do that a year ago,” she affirms. “Last year, I wouldn’t have even attempted to do it because I didn’t have a reason to do it. He encourages me to do the physical things, which makes me feel so good.”

Nelson lends a paw when she’s feeling not so good, too. Faber’s MS causes her to have neurological seizures, and Nelson helps her through them. “I actually just recently had one, and he knew what was going on. He just stayed calm and stayed by my side until it was over with,” she says.

Book Buddies

Nelson not only calms Faber during her seizures, but he also quiets the nerves of children learning how to read. Faber’s local library has a program called “Puppy Tails” where children come to the library and read to a dog. “In the presence of the dog, some children will feel more comfortable reading, and may try harder material or more difficult words,” explains a Web site promoting the library’s Puppy Tails program.

Phil Arkow, Philadelphia-based interim director of the Human-Animal Bond Center at the American Humane Association, says literacy programs like this are gaining popularity across the country. He says it’s because people are finally realizing how to exploit animals’ timeless ability to elicit a nurturing response.

According to Arkow, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has a history dating back to the ninth century, but the modern era of it started in 1962 in the psychotherapy field. A therapist brought his dog to work and he noticed his patients were much more likely to speak to his dog than to him. “Today, this works across the field from criminal justice and mental institutions to occupational, physical therapy and speech therapy fields,” Arkow adds. “People easily warm up to a furry friend that’s non-threatening and non-judgmental.”

This is especially true of physically challenged individuals. Arkow says people with physical disabilities usually experience a wide range of emotional concerns to include depression, feelings of isolation and withdrawal. Animals have a way of breaking down these emotional barriers to build trust between the patients and the therapist, he says.

Horsing Around for a Greener Pasture

Therapeutic riding programs are helping therapists capitalize on this enhanced trust. Horse therapy caters to a wide range of physical disabilities, such as spina bifida and cerebral palsy. “Through this, the patients gain a sense of ability not disability,” Arkow says. “One child once told me, ‘I can’t walk, but I sure can ride!’ For someone that’s lived their life in a wheelchair, I can’t imagine what it must be like to suddenly be above the rest of the world looking down with a sense of control.”

Lisa Reynolds, PT, executive director of the Heads Up! Therapeutic Riding Program Inc. based in Pittsboro, N.C., says this type of therapy is so popular because the movements a patient feels when riding a horse simulates the movements of walking on the ground.

“The kids are excited about riding. They invite their family and friends to come see them ride,” Reynolds says. “The parents stand along the fence of the arena, and they see their child performing an activity that developing children typically do. All of this creates a fuzzy, warm feeling of accomplishment for a family and child that don’t get a lot of that.”

Horse therapy is also useful when teaching a child how to handle multiple tasks at once. Reynolds makes the child talk and she gives them things to hold while they’re sitting astride a bareback horse. She says this is great practice for common situations like when a child is talking to a peer while carrying a lunch tray in the cafeteria at school.

Puppy Love

AAT is also proving successful for those patients re-learning how to walk, talk and handle multiple tasks at once.

Erin Kehr, CTRS, recreation therapist at Kettering Medical Center in Kettering, Ohio, helps stroke patients with a weak side practice simple motions and sensory stimulation by brushing a dog.

These patients also throw a ball to the dog standing and sitting to work on upper and lower body strength. They work on balance when they take the dog for a walk. With some stronger patients, Kehr says, they play tug-of-war with the dog.

Kehr says she sees the largest improvements using AAT with the high level deficits. “Stroke patients with no facial expressions will smile or laugh with the animals,” she adds. “And that’s a big deal.”

Akrow recalls a little girl that was involved in a car accident that needed to do arm curls day-after-day to build up her upper body strength. “Needless to say, it was getting a little boring. But you wouldn’t believe how her eyes lit up when she started doing those curls with puppies instead of weights,” Akrow says. “I’ve also seen people with aphasia that hadn’t spoken in years, start to babble when a dog is presented to them.”

Kehr is currently experiencing a similar situation with a non-verbal patient. “When she interacted with the dog today, she laughed. So, we were very happy about that,” Kehr says. “These animals can get through to patients in a way that humans cannot.”

Digging for a Future

How are animals able to get through and enhance therapy sessions? Akrow says a lot of it has to do with a changed society.

“The tactile gratification of petting a dog is often missing in our society. People don’t get as many touches as we used to. We’re not allowed to touch people,” he explains. “We’ve also seen more people in a day than our ancestors did in a lifetime, and that’s fraught with emotional baggage. Studies show that our blood pressure rises every time we meet a stranger. And study after study shows that our blood pressure goes down when we’re petting an animal.”

But there will have to be more studies, more results and more changes in society before AAT gets completely off the ground. Akrow says, in terms of AAT’s future, the good thing is that you can go just about anywhere to get advanced training on this type of therapy. The bad news is that it’s still not recognized as a legitimate therapy to the degree that ST, RT, OT or PT is.

“There aren’t any third-party payments for it, and I don’t see this changing in the foreseeable future,” he says. “Until someone figures out how to get insurance to pay for it, the medical profession will still see this as an intriguing little sidelight.”

But for people already realizing the therapeutic benefits of animals, it’s much more than that. It’s a gift from above. “I’m not a real spiritual person,” Faber admits. “But I think animals are one of the greatest gifts we’ve been given. They help us out while we’re here.”

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