“Dog therapy” was practically unheard of when the Lincolnshire Animal Hospital Dog Therapy Group got started 25 years ago. Now it is among dozens of nationwide alliances certified by the American Kennel Club, which defines pet therapy as pets who go with their owners to volunteer in settings such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes to improve the lives of other people.
“We got involved way before pet therapy was even talked about or known or understood. I actually made it part of my job proposal,” said Marilyn G. Putz, the director of the group and also a pet loss counselor for the animal hospital. She and her husband had been breeders of Irish Setters for a number of years and “we got to thinking about what kind of benefits some people could derive from contact with a pet, even if not their own,” she said.
They started the program with a nursing home in the town that was hesitant at first. “We had to really talk them into it, and even when we arrived, they looked really scared. But when we left they said, ‘When are you coming back?’” It was so successful Putz started adding more clients; it’s now up to 14 places that receive, in total, more than 100 visits a year, including schools for autistic children, homes for developmentally disabled adults and hospital psychiatry unit. Some of those that receive regular visits include Aperion Care in Highwood and Westmoreland at Lake Forest Hospital.
The program is completely volunteer-driven. Currently there are 25 dogs and handlers that are committed to signing up for at least 10 visits a year. All breeds are welcome (and new volunteers are always encouraged), but the dog has to pass a test to become a therapy dog. As well it has to be current on all vaccines and in healthy condition.
“If somebody’s dog is sick they don’t bring it,” said Putz. Each dog wears a green scarf and each volunteer dons a badge for easy identification, and the program is insured by the hospital for everyone’s safety.
Upon arrival the group meets with a supervisor from the facility who escorts them room-to-room or has them gather in a large communal setting. Only on a rare occasion will someone decline the therapy session, mostly out of fear of dogs, but in total the program has been very successful for a number of reasons.
“There has been a lot of scientific research done about it,” noted Putz. “It lowers your blood pressure, it increases conversation, it relaxes a person.”
She pointed to one example of an elderly man who had been sick and unresponsive for a couple of days. “One of my volunteers went up to him with her little poodle, and all of a sudden he opened his eyes and he reached up to pet the dog, so that was a big breakthrough.”
In another instance at a children’s hospital a little boy had been hiding under the bed covers all day and his parents had tried to help him to no avail. “My husband set our dog on the bed with him, and as the dog started nuzzling him and licking his face, he jumped out and started to be communicative. …There’s nobody in our group who doesn’t do a perfect job and sometimes work miracles.”