Fifi, Fido, and a horse named George

Montrose Daily Press [June 12, 2016] Kathryn R. Burke

Anybody see the story on Facebook about Thula the therapy cat? She’s a magical feline BFF bonded with  a six-year old autistic girl. Have you visited someone at Montrose Hospital lately? Therapy dogs make regular rounds in Med/surg every week. How about that guy with one leg, whose dog (attached by leash) tows him around in his wheel chair? I saw him at Walmart yesterday. Therapy animals provide a special kind of caregiving companionship.

Geratric George at Alice Billing’s Thunderheart Haven in Ridgway may be retired, but this old horse still understands how to provide comfort and confidence to a shy kid. Farm and ranch folks have long known that horses have a sixth sense when it comes to dealing with humans suffering from physical or mental trauma.

At Colorow, Care Center in Olathe, a resident enjoys frequent visits from a pet pot bellied pig. The facility also has a resident cat, Stormy. Although he rules the roost, he is so well behaved that he hasn’t bothered the birds that also live there.

Wherever you find them, and however you need to engage them, Fifi, Fido, and George are definitely on therapeutic duty.

Therapy animals (primarily dogs, cats, and horses) provide companionship and emotional support and help with relaxation, stress management, and healing. They work with a volunteer handler and assist mentally, emotionally, or physically ailing humans. Dogs (and sometimes cats) fill this role well in hospitals and nursing homes. Some work in concert with physical, occupational, and psychological counselors helping with serious impairments.

Although they can help people of any age, these animals are especially effective with the elderly, patients in recovery, and people with intellectual and learning disabilities, helping them achieve better communication skills and awareness of the world around them.

Nichole Hudson volunteers at schools to help students (of all ages) with reading. “When they bring in therapy dogs,” she said, it really helps kids or adults with ADD. The dogs definitely have a calming effect.”

The Pet Therapy program at Montrose Hospital has been very successful according to Dale Dvorak, Director of Volunteer Services. “Patients really enjoy having a dog come in, stay 5-10 minutes. Dogs and their volunteer handlers visit in two units, med/surge and acute rehab.” Approved dogs wear their own name badge, must be up to date on immunizations and have proof of insurance. “The program is good for the volunteers as well as the patients,” Dvorak said.

At The Homestead in Montrose, volunteers offer pet therapy to residents on a regular basis. “These ladies know which residents like to have the dogs visit,” said Director Denise Swanson. Homestead also allows residents to have (small) pets so long as they are up to date on immunizations and are responsible for the pet’s care.

Horses are also healers, but most are a little too large for bedside visits. Certified horse therapy comes through the EGALA program (Equine assisted psychotherapy & personal development), which incorporates horses to address mental health and personal development needs. Instructors are certified or someone medically or psychologically trained. To find out more about horse therapy in our area, contact Pegasus Equine Therapy, www.pegasuscolorado.org. Owner Kay Alexander is a Colorado Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Level II provider.

Therapy animals can also be Service Animals—dogs or miniature horses specially trained to perform major life tasks. They provide assistance to those with vision or hearing loss or impaired from catastrophic injury or health conditions like seizures, stroke, or mental illness. They are especially helpful to soldiers returning from war with permanent injury or PTSD. The VA has a program providing service dogs to injured vets, and a new bill, called PAWS, is pending in Congress that will help vets with emotional and mental conditions such as PTSD.

To learn more about therapy and service animal programs, contact the National Service Animal Registry, 866-737-3930 or visit nsarco.com. PetPartners.org is another good resource. To understand licensing or find out how you or your pet might qualify, contact Register My Service Animal, 480-823-5677. To locate information on therapy dogs in our area, Google: therapy animals Montrose CO. or ask a local veterinarian for a referral.

Kathryn R Burke is the author of The Caregiver’s Journey, Navigating the Path and The Caregiver’s Journey, Building Your Care Team. Both books are available at caregiver-journey.com, which also lists current speaking engagements and book signings.