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Enjoy Magazine

Pet Power

04/01/2014 02:20PM ● By Claudia Mosby
By Claudia Mosby
Photo by Eric Leslie

Prescription Pets Animal-Assisted Therapy

Those of us with a Fido or Fifi at home already know a truth that science increasingly supports: The connection forged between human and animal is powerfully healing.

Since 2000, Prescription Pets, an affiliate of Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society), has been bringing animal-assisted therapy interactions to Redding, Red Bluff, Eureka and Fortuna.

The seeds for the regional program were planted in 1998 when Diana Stockwell, then a lab manager at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, and several others were invited to bring their dogs in for hospital visitations.

Stockwell and her companions were so enthusiastic about the experience, they traveled to Washington state for Pet Partners certification as trainers and evaluators. Subsequently, they created Prescription Pets, which today uses 80 handlers and animals (many of them rescues) who receive local training, coaching and mentorship.

Five years ago, the Shasta County-based nonprofit added one of its most successful programs to-date: the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ), run in collaboration with Intermountain Therapy Animals. Handlers and animals visit area schools and the Shasta Public Libraries with the goal of improving reading skills by having children read aloud to a dog.

Prescription Pets volunteer Janice Galloway, who has worked with animal-assisted therapy for more than 35 years, was looking for an opportunity after relocating to Redding when she heard Stockwell’s presentation at a local church.  

A certified therapeutic recreational specialist, Galloway says, “My first registered animal was my cat, Dancer, a calico kitty with neurological problems who couldn’t walk.” Adopted from a no-kill shelter, Dancer was not unique among differently abled animals that are commonly employed to aid recovery.

“We always ask a person if they would like to have a visit or interact with Abby,” says Galloway of her four-year-old white standard poodle, a popular breed for such therapies because poodles are both hypoallergenic and intelligent, making them easy to work with in a variety of settings. 

Galloway and Abby visit monthly at LeBrun Residential Care Facility, which serves 45 residents with severe mental illness. “I have people with obsessive-compulsive disorder who have gotten to the point where they pet her, which is a giant step for someone with that disorder,” says Galloway.  

“We have an unbelievable retention rate among our volunteers,” adds Stockwell, who credits the organization’s strong mentorship program. “Having someone shadowing behind and role modeling instead of just dropping our Pet Partners off at a facility and telling them to ‘go visit’ makes a big difference.”

Training classes are offered twice yearly in Redding and include classroom instruction for the handler followed by a half-hour evaluation in which both handler and animal are presented with two dozen scenarios they may encounter during a visit.  

“The animals have to be controllable and predictable, OK with touch and stimulation, and handle stress well,” says Stockwell. This means no unexpected elimination, growling, biting or scratching.

The good news: many animals can be desensitized by taking them out in public and exposing them to a variety of people and environments. Most domesticated animals can be trained to become Pet Partners, says Stockwell, but much depends on an animal’s disposition and a handler’s willingness to train.

Animal-assisted therapy interactions are used to motivate recovery in a variety of clinical settings.  Clare Gaston, a retired occupational therapy assistant at Vibra, returns to her former employer as a volunteer with her dogs Di and Whoopi to assist patients with everything from balance to endurance.

“We’ll have them toss a ball for the dog to catch or have them stand and brush the dog. Oftentimes as a result, we’ll get a patient to stand two to three times longer than a therapist alone would get them to stand. We usually improve the outcome because the focus is on the animal rather than the activity,” says Gaston.

Prescription Pets is funded through donations and currently reaches individuals at healthcare facilities, convalescent homes, classrooms and the library, to name only a few. Pet Partners have also granted special requests for end-of-life situations where someone in hospice has wanted a visit from a dog.

“Whether animals are on site for visitation or therapeutic outcomes, it is a pleasant experience for all, including facility staff,” says Stockwell.