In Case You Need Some Friendly Fur Today: Pet Therapy
By: Carys Bowen
Recently I interviewed my grandmother, Robin Herrington-Bowen, about her experience in pet therapy. There are two kinds of pet therapy: one is pet assisted therapy, which physical and occupational therapists do, and Robin does the kind that is simply called “pet therapy.” This is when she takes her dog to people that would benefit from a visit with her. These visits generate many stories, some of which seem rather like miracles.
Robin has been doing pet therapy for eighteen years with Pet Therapy International, and prior to that she did it informally with her dogs Ben and Andre, who she took to visit her father at his nursing home. Robin liked the fact that when she came, everyone wanted to see the dogs. She also knew of pet therapy, and so when she retired in May of 2000, she took a pet therapy class with her dog Frannie. Frannie was so impressive that the very next Monday, Robin and Frannie went to the center for dialysis care in Euclid with one of the trainers and her dog. Robin has been doing pet therapy ever since.
Q: Can you describe the dogs that you’ve worked with in pet therapy?
A: Well, I first did pet therapy informally, with Ben and Andre, and they were quite good at it, although they weren’t trained in pet therapy. They were obedience trained, and they did anything I asked them to do. They were really quite wonderful dogs. I trained Gabriel as a therapy dog, but because he was somewhat reactive, he never was registered. So, Gabriel wasn’t registered, but he would go places with me, and visit with people that I knew it was okay to visit with. That was informal, not part of the Therapy Dogs International organization. Then came Winnie, who was a more relaxed kind of a dog. She was what we call a leaner: she would go by a patient, and lean on them, and let them pet her. She was very good at that. She never did use the piano, because the one time she touched it, Frannie got after her, and after that she wouldn’t even look at it. I guess Frannie was top dog at that point in time. After Frannie retired, Winnie went to do the visits, and I wasn’t quite as active by that time. With Frannie, we worked at least four or five days a week, but with Winnie, we didn’t work quite as often. Now there is Daisy, who is working right now.
Q: What is the first story that comes to mind when someone mentions pet therapy?
A: Oh, I’ve got two from behavioral medicine that I really love. The person from the staff who sat in with me would tell me if there was someone that really needed some pet therapy and thought it might help them. One time they described this young woman. She was sitting on a loveseat in the room where we met, which was like a little lounge where the people would gather. She was so sad, she was quite depressed, and she was nonverbal. She wasn’t all that old, she must’ve been in her twenties. I put Frannie up on the loveseat beside her. Frannie laid down beside her, she put her feet on her lap, and she rested her head on the woman’s bosom. And the woman’s hand just automatically came up and petted her. And then she started murmuring to her. And it was like she was having this really quiet conversation with Frannie. And then they both fell asleep. And it was so sweet to see the peaceful look, rather than the very sad look, on her face.
The other story was in the same setting. The staff would bring down the people that were from the geriatric behavioral medicine, which is more about my age. They brought this dear woman down, who was really profoundly depressed and hadn’t spoken for a long time. She was sitting on a loveseat, so I put Frannie up next to her and I sort of knelt on the floor beside Frannie so that there would be room. Frannie put her head on the woman’s lap and again, and the woman automatically started petting her. She petted her, and her outlook brightened, and she started talking to all of us, she became quite verbal, and quite contented. I won’t say happy, but she was contented. It was a beautiful thing to see.
Q: Have you ever experienced and pet therapy mishaps?
A: Oh, I remember being at working dog days with Frannie, and this is out at Lake Farm Park. The therapy dogs were all collected in one area, and one of the dogs who was there was a Landseer newfoundland. That’s a black and white newfoundland, and they are very big, and they have very big flus, which are their lips, and I noticed the handler had a big Turkish towel packed in her pocket. All of a sudden, the dog shook, and the spit flew off her flus, and Frannie and I, who were across the room, were covered! Fortunately, I had a towel too. That was probably the worst mishap.
There was another really funny one. It didn’t happen to me, but I got the fallout. One of my friends, named Margaret, had two golden retrievers that she took to Saint Angela’s Center, and Margaret’s youngest one, I think his name was Luke, he went to this one sister’s room, and she had stuffed animals all along the railing that’s outside her room. Well, he grabbed one of those, and took it, and she was not amused. And Margaret actually took the stuffed animal home, cleaned it, and took it back, but she wouldn’t accept it. So, the next time I came there was this big sign on her door, and it said, “Do Not Bring Dogs in Here. Do Not Let Them Eat My Animals.” So, I kind of tiptoed by.
Q: If anyone wanted to go into pet therapy, what would you have them do?
A: They would go to a training place and do obedience training. I did it at Canine University. Cold Nose Companions comes to mind, and it’s in Chardon. I trained there for something else, and it’s a good training facility. Then you go into the training for therapy dogs. Besides the basic obedience, you have to train the dog to work around noises, work around people who cough, or splutter, or yell, work around hospital equipment, like walkers, wheelchairs, and now, motorized wheelchairs. The biggest thing is, you have to teach them “leave it,” because often in a healthcare setting there are things on the floor that your dog should not eat, like spilled meds. When visiting, you’re always scanning the vicinity, and if you see something, and are going to walk by it, you say, “leave it,” and your dog ignores it. Dogs also have to allow their handlers to meet and greet each other and just ignore it: they can’t sniff each other, they just have to be there with you. These are hard things to train.
The other thing dogs have to learn to do is have their handler leave the room and stay with what they call a “friendly stranger,” meaning, I would give the lead to somebody who was sitting in the evaluation room, and I would leave the room, and the dog can’t moan, and carry on, and run after you, because if they bolt, you know, they’re out. That’s one of the important things.
Also, the dogs have to be able to be hugged and crowded. I did train for another registration, which I think is called Pet Partners now, though it was called something else in the olden days. I was registered there, with Winnie and Frannie. I was in two different things, which you’re not supposed to be, but I was. And they had much more stringent evaluations. They would have three people come up and hug the dog. Winnie was fine with that. Actually, Frannie was too. Daisy couldn’t have stood it. They would drop bedpans, crutches, all kinds of things: it was very hard evaluation. Therapy Dogs International is a little less that way. Dogs still have to be well trained, but they don’t stress the dog.
Training is usually twice a week for eight weeks. Once you’ve trained, you go for evaluation. They have other dogs there, being evaluated, and they have to go through their paces. The dogs are evaluated on the basis of all these training things and then if you pass the evaluation, you apply for registration, and then you send it all in, with the check, and then you get back your credentials, and every year you have to renew. For the Pet Partners, dogs had to be tested every year. For Therapy Dogs International, you renew with your veterinary form. All your things have to be up to date with the vet and the dog has to be in good health.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pet therapy is highly beneficial for patients. As seen in Frannie’s case, it was also beneficial for the dog! If you would like to go into pet therapy, take a look at this information for the organizations and places mentioned in the interview:
Pet Therapy Organizations:
Therapy Dogs International:
Phone: (973) 252-9800
Address: 24850 Aurora Rd, Bedford Heights, OH 44146
Cold Nose Companions:
Address: 12531 GAR Highway, Chardon, OH 44024
Places to Volunteer:
Lake Farm Park:
Address: 8800 Euclid Chardon Rd, Kirtland, OH 44094
Saint Angela’s Center:
Phone: (440) 449-8287
Address: 2600 Lander Rd, Cleveland, OH 44124