Therapy Dogs

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Animal-Assisted Therapy

They offer companionship, unconditional love and can always brighten up your day. Dogs are a human’s best friend. And they offer more benefits than many people may realize.

Through animal-assisted therapy — which can also include cats, horses, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, pigs, alpacas, and llamas — people can improve their mental and physical wellness by bonding with an animal.

Denise Silcox has served as a volunteer evaluator and instructor with Pet Partners for nearly 15 years and has one of her three dogs active in the Therapy Animal Program. To enroll, a person and their pet must complete a handler’s workshop, then be evaluated as a team to ensure they work well together.

“People look at their animal and say, ‘Wow, this dog is so good with people. It would be a good therapy dog,’ but they forget they need to be good at it too,” said Silcox, who is also a licensed professional counselor and clinical assistant professor for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s School of Rehabilitation. “The workshop covers basic obedience and skills and testing their aptitude for therapy-type situations involving escalating stress levels.”

Once trained, the animal — which Silcox said are primarily dogs — can be employed in a variety of environments, from prisons to hospitals to schools and more.

“Basically anywhere there are people and the agency will let the animals in, they can go in,” Silcox said. “There are a lot of benefits, and they sometimes differ in different populations, but generally, physically, research shows just five minutes of petting a dog can lower blood pressure, increase dopamine and serotonin receptors, and lower levels of anxiety and depression.”

A study from Loyola University Health System shows patients recovering from total joint replacement surgery who received animal-assisted therapy in the form of five- to 15-minute daily visits experienced a 28% lower need for oral pain medication compared to patients who did not.

In addition to physical and emotional benefits, animal-assisted therapy provides social benefits, as well.

“With seniors, it can increase their communication,” Silcox said. “They may only pet dogs for a couple of minutes, but they’ll then start talking about the dogs they’ve had in the past.”

Another common setting for animal-assisted therapy are libraries, where the dog or animal can lie down for a few hours and be read to. This is also a less rigorous visit that older dogs near retirement are well suited for.

“People have done studies that have concluded reading out loud to a dog raises a child’s reading level by two grade levels,” Silcox said. “It sounds kind of silly reading to a dog, but reading out loud increases their fluency.”

Though animal-assisted therapy is provided on a volunteer basis to help others, Silcox said the handler also reaps some benefits and strengthens their relationship with their pet.

“All you really have to do is have an animal you can work with and have the heart to help people,” she said. “In order to do it right, it is time-consuming.”

To reduce the risk of transmitting any infection, the animal must be bathed or cleaned and have their nails or hooves trimmed prior to the visit. Furthermore, to become part of the Pet Partners Therapy Animal Program, most species of therapy animals require their rabies vaccination, and all must go through a health screening and be re-evaluated every two years.

With dogs as the most commonly used animal for the program, Silcox said any type of breed can have success — depending on their individual temperaments and personalities.

“One of the best therapy dogs I’ve seen in my life came from Corpus Christi,” Silcox recounts. “Gang members had gotten ahold of him, caused him physical harm, and left him on the side of the road to die.”

Silcox continued to explain a friend of hers saved him, brought him back to health, and started using him for animal-assisted therapy.

“He went to the children’s hospital every week and was the sweetest, most forgiving dog — even though he had every reason not to be,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic, Silcox said there were 10 local Pet Partners teams, but the number has since wavered. She is hoping to recruit and help certify more volunteers. 

Anyone interested may visit petpartners.org or reach out to Silcox at dsil418@aol.com.

Rocio Villalobos