Valentine Camurati wheels her husband, Albert, to a spot near the front doors of the Center for Extended Care in Manhasset, N.Y. (pop. 8,362). “Wednesday is doggie day,” she explains as residents, some in wheelchairs, others on foot, gather in anticipation.
Moments later, a collective sigh signals the arrival of Lily and Orion, a pair of white Great Pyrenees that trot through the double doors of the long-term rehabilitation facility with handler Susie Wong in tow. The dogs’ floppy hats hang precariously between their ears and their tails wag in unison as they head straight for Mr. Camurati, 89, who is recovering from a fractured pelvis. His face brightens as he leans forward to hug the large furry dogs. He puts his face right up to Lily’s nose and whispers in her ear.
“I love dogs,” says Camurati, of Whitestone, N.Y., after he reluctantly lets another resident take a turn stroking the dogs’ soft, long coat. Emotion tinges his voice as he recalls his own late beloved German shepherd.
“If I had to choose between humans and dogs, I would choose a dog,” he says. “You want to teach someone what love is, you give them a dog.”
The dogs evoke similar responses as they and Wong make their rounds, first visiting patients in the physical therapy department and then in their rooms, often resting their big noses right in the laps of patients as they sit in bed.
After spending two hours grooming and bathing the dogs—a procedure Wong adheres to every week before their three-hour visit—she’s proud of how well behaved they are, their soft fur, and the attention they receive from patients, doctors, nurses, visitors and staff members. Lily and Orion are two of her four purebred Great Pyrenees, and they’ve won numerous dog show ribbons and awards for training and showmanship.
“These dogs go to your soul,” says Wong, of Woodmere, N.Y., as a physical therapist gets down on her knees to hug the dogs in the hallway. “It’s a sin not to share them. If I put a smile on someone’s face, that’s all that matters.”
Animals like Lily and Orion do much more than put smiles on patients’ faces. The therapeutic effect animals have on people has been documented in scientific studies that show animals can decrease blood pressure in humans, reduce stress and anxiety, lower medication costs and even prolong life after a heart attack. Animals also assist patients in their physical rehabilitation. But it is the pure, unadulterated love that exists between a human being and an animal that works wonders on the psyche in a way that is virtually impossible to document.
“How can you measure love?” asks Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Dogs, a nonprofit group based in Salt Lake City that screens, trains and certifies dogs and their handlers. “It’s hard to break it down into neat little definitions. Animals simply don’t judge one another. They don’t care if someone is missing part of their face. They look people in the eye and they don’t cringe. People get embarrassed about things that have happened to them and it makes it harder for them to interact. The animals make them feel totally accepted. It is a magical factor.”
Anecdotes about the therapeutic value of animals date back hundreds of years, but no organization certified animals for this purpose until Therapy Dogs International (TDI), based in Flanders, N.J., was established in 1970. Since then, the number of therapy dogs has increased as health care institutions have recognized their healing power. Today, about 15,000 dogs and 13,000 volunteer handlers are registered with TDI.
Dogs aren’t the only animals used for therapy. The Delta Society, headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., has trained more than 3,000 volunteer animal-human teams in five countries, and will consider doing so for any legal domesticated animal. The society’s “Pet Partners” program includes cats, chickens, rabbits, donkeys, goats, guinea pigs, horses, llamas and even pot-bellied pigs.
A tan and white rabbit is Heather Mietz Egli’s partner when she visits a nursing home, children’s hospital or the Alzheimer’s unit of an assisted living facility near her home in Santa Cruz, Calif. Mietz Egli has dogs, cats, rabbits and rats as pets, and wanted to provide pet therapy after reading a story about animal-assisted activities in a local newspaper. But it wasn’t until she adopted her rabbit, Sam, two years ago that she felt she had an animal whose disposition was right for the job.
“A rabbit needs to enjoy being petted and interacting with people,” says Mietz Egli, 36. “It’s important that he doesn’t spook; he doesn’t get twitchy or jumpy. Sam reacts well to being picked up. He’s a very mellow, placid creature who loves to be fawned over.”
That’s what patients do when Mietz Egli arrives with her beloved bunny. “The neat thing about the rabbit is he can sit on their lap,” she says. “People just want to hold him. His coat is really soft; it’s just like velvet. They fuss over him like he was a little baby.”
The majority of registered therapy animals are dogs, simply because more generalized training and obedience programs exist for dogs than any other animal, says Dianne Bell, program manager for Pet Partners.
Training is important when it comes time to evaluating an animal for therapy purposes, but it’s not the only criteria. In addition to obeying basic commands, being well groomed and in good health, the animals must demonstrate socialization skills, including enjoying being around people and being handled.
“Dogs aren’t pieces of equipment that you can take off a shelf and put into service at will,” Klotz says. “It’s important in this Pet Partner testing process that it’s something the dog enjoys as a job.”
Some dogs, such as Lily and Orion, are naturally comfortable around—and comforting to—people. “You can tell they love people,” says Diana Gerasimovich, 70, of Glen Oaks, N.Y., who is recovering from knee replacement surgery at the Center for Extended Care in Manhasset.
She pets Wong’s dogs in the physical therapy room and watches Orion playfully nudge Lily out of the way so he can place his big nose on her lap. “I love all animals, but I love dogs the most. They give more love than anything you can get,” Gerasimovich says as she leans down to talk to Orion. “You are wonderful! I love you, you know that!”
Wong stands patiently to the side, one hand firmly holding her dogs’ short leashes as she casually joins the conversation. “You look like you’re getting much better,” she tells Gerasimovich. “When are you going home?”
Therapy animal handlers with a good bedside manner are an important part of the equation for effective pet therapy. “We look for people who can role play and be empathetic to a patient’s situation,” says Klotz, adding that the ideal volunteer handler not only loves their pet, but desires to help people.
Mietz Egli, who was raised by parents who valued and demonstrated service to others, fits the job description perfectly. “I’m happy if other people are happy,” she says. “People hold Sam for as long as I’m willing to sit there. We talk about him or their lives or how they grew up. It’s nice for all of us.”