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Therapy dogs: Healing physical and mental illnesses

It's often said that a dog is man's best friend, but in addition to being loyal companions, canines can make excellent healers.

Throughout the country, people who are trained to work with therapy dogs take their four-legged companions to visit adults and children in hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.

Therapy dog services are provided by volunteers. There typically is no charge to the people who receive therapy or to the facilities where they are located, explains Steve Siadek, co-founder of Healthy Paws Pet Insurance in Bellevue, Wash.

therapy dogsTherapy dogs are chosen for their gentleness, and they can restore confidence to people who struggle with a wide variety of ailments, saysSusan Eldred, a retired university professor in San Diego. She volunteers the therapy services of her dog Buddy, a laid-back, eight-year-old beagle.

What makes Buddy a good therapy dog is the sense of calm he brings to people, Eldred says. She noticed that quality when she went to the pound to find a dog to adopt. She decided to share Buddy's good nature with people who are ill.

"His tail wags when anybody approaches him," she explains. "We got registered with Therapy Dogs Inc. In the last year we have gone to hospitals. He loves being petted. He seems to sense when someone is not feeling well."

Billie Smith, executive director of Therapy Dogs Inc. in Cheyenne, Wyo., has been involved in using dogs to help people recover from illness and emotional trauma since 1991. Over the years, the way therapy dogs are used has expanded.

"We are starting a new program called Court Dogs, where dogs go in and sit with children who have been abused and have to go up on the stand and face the person who assaulted them," she says. "The dog is there to give them comfort while they're doing that.”

How therapy dogs can help

Some highly trained dogs become service animals, providing emotional support to a single person who adopts them. This is different from volunteer pet therapy programs, as these service dogs typically aid those with physical disabilities. In addition to their therapeutic value, the animals are trained to open doors, turn on lights and perform other tasks for disabled owners. As service dogs, they have a legal right to accompany their owners in public places.

Marlene Krpata, an Army veteran who was severely wounded in Iraq, says she was able to regain peace of mind and overcome a fear of being in public places because of the support she received from her poodle Gracie.

A service dog, Gracie was provided by Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs, Inc. (TLCAD), a nonprofit group based in Solana Beach, Calif. This group places service dogs with people whose lives can be improved by having a full-time canine companion. TLCAD trains dogs for people who want to live more independent lives. When the program began in 1998, the greatest demand was for dogs to assist people with mobility problems, seizures, cerebral palsy, Tourette syndrome and hearing losses. TLCAD now focuses primarily on assisting children and families who have been impacted by autism and on the needs of wounded veterans like Krpata.

Krpata says she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when she returned from the war.

"When I got back from Iraq I had a lot of issues, depression and a lot of fear, especially at night," she recalls. "In 2009 I was at my wit's end. I was afraid to be in my house alone. I would sleep sitting up. Just going grocery shopping was unbearable."

Plagued by night terrors, a sleep disorder characterized by anxiety and panic episodes, she contacted TLCAD, which arranged for her to adopt Gracie. Once she realized that she could trust Gracie to remain by her side, her fears began to ease.

A calming presence

"It was wonderful," Krpata says. "My nighttime sleeping increased. Now when I wake up I don't have to check behind every door, every crevice. Gracie is (calmly) lying beside me. It allows me to calm down more quickly."

Laura Hey, the founder of Health Heelers Therapy Dogs in Menomonee Falls, Wis., says there are physiological changes that occur whenever people interact with dogs in a positive way.

"Blood pressure decreases," she says. "Pulmonary stress is decreased. Stress hormones drop significantly."

While therapy dog volunteers often adopt their dogs from animal shelters, adopting a highly-trained service dog can come with a steep price, explains Siadek. He says he is aware of no insurance companies that assist with the purchases.

The nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, Calif. charges nothing for the service dogs it provides to the disabled. In contrast, TLCAD currently charges $20,000 for each dog, says Shauna Montrucchio, business operations manager. For people who can't afford that price, TLCAD works to obtain grants and scholarships to offset the cost.

Until June 2013, TLCAD provided the dogs free of charge.That practice ended because TLCAD needed to offset the cost of training the animals, Montrucchio adds. She says she is aware of no insurance companies that provide funds for purchasing service dogs.

Liability insurance for therapy dogs

People who own dogs that interact with members of the public often obtain liability insurance for their animals.

"We have to have liability insurance to make sure that if anything happens we are covered," Montrucchio says.

Many therapy dog owners do volunteer work after becoming certified through nonprofit organizations. These organizations can obtain liability insurance for the owners and their dogs through group plans. The coverage usually exceeds $1 million for each incident or liability claim.

To qualify for insurance coverage at Therapy Dogs Inc., dogs must pass stringent veterinary examinations, Smith says. They also must demonstrate their ability to safely interact with strangers and remain calm in stressful situations.

A therapy dog owner's membership fee of $30 per year covers the cost of insurance. Both volunteers and their dogs are covered when they conduct therapy sessions.

It’s up to the volunteer to find therapy opportunities for their dog. The dog handler usually contacts someone at a facility they want to visit, such as a hospital or nursing home, Smith says.

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