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The Healing Power of Therapy Pets

Talk about making the most of second chances. Two years ago, Maddie, a yellow Labrador, was an abused dog left on the side of the road with her 10 puppies. Taken to Canine Soulmates, an animal foster group, four-year-old Maddie got a second chance when she adopted her handler Jane Nolan in March 2014.

Rather than just living the good life in her new home, Maddie used this second chance to help others. Maddie and Jane work together as a therapy dog team through Pet Partners, a national leader in animal-assisted therapy based in Bellevue, WA.

“I saw that Maddie had a really good temperament and a very kind heart,” explains Jane. “You can’t always find dogs that are mellow, sweet and approachable.”

Dr. Brian Benjamin of Ohio Drive Animal Hospital in Plano, TX, agrees that a good temperament is key for a therapy animal. He points out that adequate training can bring out the most effective results. “A therapy animal shouldn’t have any trust issues,” says Dr. Benjamin. “Plus, you can provide behavioral training so the animal will be patient, not afraid of loud noises, and not aggressive.”

To get her “working papers,” Maddie got evaluated and trained through A New Leash on Life, one of dozens community partners affiliated with Pet Partners. After a physical, behavior evaluation and six months of training in obedience, socialization, and manners, Maddie got the green light.

Therapy Animals Work Wonders

Together, Maddie and Jane visit area hospitals, retirement homes, and other facilities where the healing power of animal-human interaction works wonders. “We just help give a little bit of normalcy to the day and help them feel better,” says Jane, citing how patients’ days are filled with tests, medication, needles, therapies, and exams.

Therapy pets also ease grief, stress and loneliness, which is why Flora Ellias, Dr. Benjamin’s receptionist, takes her three-year-old Irish Wolfhound Sheldon to visit hospice patients. “You can easily see the connection that people have with the dogs,” says Flora, who’s been taking Sheldon on hospice visits three times a month for the past two years. “Some patients are nonverbal until the dogs visit, and then they start talking. Rehab patients with mobility issues will pet and brush the dogs. Even Alzheimer’s patients sometimes recall a pet they had from childhood.”

Dr. Benjamin understands the therapeutic effects that animals can have on people. “There have been studies done that show the simple process of petting a dog or hearing a cat purr can release endorphins that benefit a person’s state of mind.” Jane has witnessed this first hand.

“One five-year-old boy in oncology had lost his sight and was feeling nauseous,” recalled Jane on a past visit to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. “He was petting Maddie, trying to figure out what she looks like. I said, ‘Do you trust me and Maddie?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ And I said, ‘We’re going to play a game. You’re going to touch her and tell me what part you’re touching.’ After he figured out he was touching Maddie’s head, he said it felt like her heart because she’s so soft, and I thought that was so intuitive of him. It made him calm down and be more relaxed. It was a special moment.”

Think being a therapy animals is just for dogs? Think again. A variety of animals have the potential to serve as therapy animals, including cats, pigs, ponies, birds, guinea pigs and rabbits. To get involved, donate or find a local affiliate, contact Pet Partners, 875 124th Ave NE, Suite 101, Bellevue, WA 98005, 425-679-5500,

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