Healthy Beginnings

Assisted dog therapy can enlighten one’s soul physically, mentally and socially

Johanna Ortiz cuddles with Lucy the Doberman during her visit at the Carson Plaza Retirement Home.

For many older adults residing in retirement homes or in hospice care, it’s just another day — until a four-legged companion walks in.

When an assisted therapy dog approaches with a wagging tail — and a soft pant to convince it’s a smile — the person’s energy transforms.

The dog becomes an antidote; miracles happen just by the connection of therapeutic value.

“It’s statistically shown that patients take less medication when they have a therapy dog visit them,” said Karen Kipler of Carson City’s Canine Angels. “I’ve seen patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s that have not spoken a word in a long time, but they will open up when they see the dog.”

Assisted dog therapy can benefit anyone, but when it comes to the elder community of Northern Nevada, just being able to hug a pup can enlighten one’s soul physically, mentally and socially.

Resources for assisted therapy companionship in Northern Nevada are perpetual, as there are many certified volunteers in the area, as well as classes for those who may be interested getting involved.

HEALTH BENEFITS OF ASSISTED THERAPY

Cassie, Sophie, and Lucy — two Labradors and a Doberman — strut their way into Carson Plaza one afternoon.

The retirement community is a commonplace visit for the peppy pups, as they naturally sense who needs the most love on that day.

They are a part of Kipler’s Canine Angels volunteer therapy group, and they visit retirement and hospice homes throughout Reno and Carson City.

Maysie Lord pets Cassie, the black lab, at Carson Plaza Retirement Home during a visit this summer.

“The dogs look forward to the visit,” she said. “The seniors know them by name and the dogs remember them. We are predominantly a retirement community, and many of them are home bound and cannot get around by car.”

According to Northern Nevada Medical Center, petting and spending time with therapeutic dogs can lower blood pressure, decrease the feelings of isolation, depression or anxiety and numb pain temporarily.

Specifically, therapeutic dogs can greatly benefit those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, PTSD and autism to enhance quality of life and communication, as stated in a study by the American Psychiatric Association.

From there, the list of health benefits goes on —one article by the American Heart Association suggest that a 12-minute visit of therapeutic dogs reduces the risk of heart disease, blood pressure and lowers cholesterol levels.

Robin Meyer, Life Enrichment Director of Sierra Place Senior Living in Carson City, said every time Canine Angels visits the facility once a month, she notices positive changes in the residents.

“The connection is striking,” she said. “It’s a normal reaction to admire a friendly animal, but it’s a real social time. Residents love that and they reminisce on past pets.”

It’s all about the non-judgmental nature of these trained dogs, said Veterinarian Dawn Gleason of Carson Valley Veterinarian Hospital.

She said older adults need that comfort the most when they are reaching the end. It makes them feel like they have a purpose during their final years — or days.

Judy Pauley finds comfort from Sophie’s company at the Carson Plaza Retirement Home.

“Older seniors can have the same mindset as kids, and dogs don’t judge,” she said. “Some seniors worry about how they walk, but dogs don’t worry about that. They just provide love, and want you to sit with them and enjoy them.”

These companions don’t fill a void for a short time — for elders, it’s long term. A study conducted by Pets Are A Wonderful Support, a therapeutic organization based in San Francisco, found that bereaved individuals with little to no social interaction were associated with less depression if therapeutic animals were involved.

It’s similar for those in wheelchairs or those in pain — therapeutic animals increased socialization and decreased medication intake.

Outside of Carson City, Terry Cuyler’s group makes frequent visits to the Carson Valley Medical Hospital in Gardnerville.

Cuyler also is the President of Nevada Chapter’s READing Paws, a national therapeutic program aimed to children to help enhance literacy skills by reading to dogs.

Although that program in particular does not apply to seniors, Cuyler also is part of the Inter Mountain Therapy Animals organization for volunteers.

“It’s important to know that not any dog is comfortable doing this,” she said. “There are dogs that behave well but not all enjoy accompanying strangers.”

Although most therapists can be contacted throughout the region to make visits, each dog has undergone thorough and specific training to meet the needs of elders. 

TRAINING A DOG TO BE A THERAPIST

Thanks to assisted therapeutic dog-training classes, there are many therapists throughout Carson City and Reno to serve, just by contacting main sources.

Sit Means Sit Dog Training by Terri Dickerson is based in Reno and certifies 15-20 dogs per year. She said those who call for a visit from a dog may contact the office to set up an appointment with a graduated therapist.

“Therapeutic dogs open up a dam in people,” she said. “It opens up communication, people melt and soften.”

There’s also Dog Training by PJ in Reno, which also offers training classes and requires a follow-up evaluation, specifically from the American Kennel Club.

Pamela “PJ” Wangsness, owner and certified dog trainer, said many of her graduates continue assisted therapy at homes and hospitals.

“Not only does it give people hope to continue on but it gives a dog a chance to learn certain behavioral skills,” she said.

Dickerson and Wangsness train dogs and their owners one hour per day for up to 6 weeks, followed by an evaluation test for qualification.

Although both schools have different training requirements and fees, both trainers feel it’s important for the general public to understand the difference between a therapeutic dog and a service dog.

Dickerson said it’s harder to train a therapy dog rather than a service dog.

“Service dogs should not be seen,” she said. “They’re serving one person. Therapeutic dogs need to be trained for manners in order to see multiple people.

“If somebody is interested in getting involved, they need to analyze and see if their pet is enjoying it,” Wangsness said.

With that, a dog’s attitude is beneficial to one’s health and needs to be therapeutically broken to mend — and there’s never not enough for more therapeutic dogs to give back to the community with that service.

Brooke Slansky, Manager of Volunteer Services of Kindred at Home Hospice, has a group of 15 therapists, who all go to hospitals and hospice homes throughout Carson City and Dayton. Ideally, she would love to have 50 volunteers someday, she said.

“I have a patient who sits with her head on the table and doesn’t interact,” Slansky said. “But once one of the dogs interacts with her, she starts squealing like a little girls and her eyes light up.

Animals bring a lot of joy to our cycle, but when we’re at the end of it, they’re more gentle because they know.”

Molly Moser is a reporter for the Nevada Appeal, a newspaper within the Sierra Nevada Media Group, which publishes Healthy Beginnings.


TIPS FOR ASSISTED THERAPY TRAINING

Want to get involved and give back to the community by training your companion to become an assisted dog therapist? It’s best to ensure to first train your dog for the following qualities, according to dog trainers from Dog Training by PJ and Sit Means Sit.

A dog needs to stand steady with good temperament, and be willing to be pet by strangers. Do they like it or do they shy away?

“I can’t make an introvert an extrovert,” says Pamela “PJ” Wangsness, owner of Dog Training by PJ.

Dogs also need to learn how be alone without aggression or fear.

They need to comprehend demands such as sit, lay down, stay, come when called, etc.

They need to know how to walk quietly on a leash and not act hyper.

The stuff learned at obedience classes doesn’t stop – training should be continued at home, as homework. Be consistent about taking them out on walks and get them in public. They need to walk in between people and other dogs without reacting.

They should not pick up food from the floor, as it is a health hazard to the client. Part of the assisted therapy certification requires dogs to drop food when told.

Dogs can be any breed and size to become an assisted therapist, as long as they have the temperament and quality training.