“The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both,” claims the website at avma.org.

And while that bond can be seen in any household that has pets as companions, it is at its strongest when animals are used as tools in clinical therapy to promote health, healing and comfort.

On a recent visit to Dale Gowell’s Auburn home, there is a flurry of activity when greeted at the door by four spirited dachshunds. One of them, Arsinoe, is currently a therapy dog that regularly visits patients at Central Maine Medical Center and at Hospice House. Two others, Hope and Rebekah, are retired from the therapeutic work and the fourth, Alderick, is a rescue dog that has been simply a house pet.

Gowell first learned about therapy dogs watching a television show on the subject. At the time, he had a miniature pinscher, named Pepsi, who he thought might make a good therapy dog.

“I discovered that not every dog can be designated a therapy dog. They have to go through vigorous training and testing to actually be certified as a therapy dog,” said Gowell.

Gowell and his dogs received their training through Therapy Dogs Inc., based in Cheyenne, Wyoming. According to its website, the qualifications to become a therapy dog begin with a dog that is friendly, that can be any breed or mix, and an owner/handler who has a desire to share it with those who are no longer able to own a pet, or who are in a health facility separated or away from their pets.

“It is not as simple as bringing a dog to see someone in the hospital. There are standards and procedures that make the experience a safe and comforting one,” said Gowell.

Guidelines often cover everything from liability issues to proper etiquette during a patient-pet visit to the health status of the animal and its owner.

At Carlisle Academy, Integrative Equine Therapy and Sports in Lyman, Maine, Susan Grant, is the therapy and adaptive program director who provides healing therapy with an animal much larger than a dog: through horses. She said the animals are a bit alike.

“Horses are really large dogs when it comes to their training,” said Grant. “They are pack, herd and social animals. When both are trained and have appropriate behaviors, they are ready for human interaction therapy.

“People react by wanting to touch animals. They want to pet or groom them or feed them. It is a natural instinct,” said Grant. “The therapy training involves making the animal comfortable with the interaction.”

The Equine center offers programs that have a clinical strategy supervised by a physical therapist or occupational therapist.

“Let’s say we are treating some who has had a stroke with movement loss on the right side of their body,” said Grant. “We place them on a horse that forces them to develop a movement to treat their loss. The movement of the horse therapeutically requires them to adjust and use muscles to bring about recovery.”

Other programs at the center are adaptive riding, which has more of a fun experience to it than a specific clinical goal. She said that people suffering from depression who can’t do anything simply enjoy the experience of riding.

“They are introduced to a new activity that they can do and experience,” said Grant.

Gowell’s father, Ed, spent his last days before passing at Hospice House, where there was no therapy dog program.

“I suggested that they create a program and they were open to the idea,” said Gowell, who went on to develop the hospice program that is in place today. Currently, there are eight therapy dogs making regular visits there.

Gowell said that the connection between dog and patient can be a special and strong one.

“Some therapy dogs visit patients and simply treat it like a fun adventure,” said Gowell. “There are other dogs that have ‘wise eyes’ and know that their visits with a patient are very special in comforting folks through difficult times.”

The Therapy Dogs website claims that the visits can be most rewarding for patients.

“People may be invited to pet or stroke the dog. If the dog is small enough, and with permission, people may hold them in their laps or place them carefully on a bed,” said the site. “The visit is designed to help people take their minds off of problems that may involve disease, failing health or loneliness and depression.”


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