Lending a paw: Local groups harness the power of animal therapy

Catherine Erikson, a trauma counselor at UVA, uses her dog Poe to help reassure and ground clients. Poe is so popular he has his own drop-in office hours for students and staff. Photo by Eze Amos Catherine Erikson, a trauma counselor at UVA, uses her dog Poe to help reassure and ground clients. Poe is so popular he has his own drop-in office hours for students and staff. Photo by Eze Amos

Tamera Mason, an EMT working at Augusta Health’s emergency room in Staunton, lives with a life-threatening medical condition: In July 2015, a yellow jacket’s sting set off an extreme autoimmune reaction that devastated her hormonal systems and caused Addison’s disease, which affects the adrenal glands’ ability to produce cortisol. When Mason’s body goes into Addisonian crisis, she explains, “I have three minutes to mix and inject medication that will give me 15 minutes to get to an emergency room.” In the last four years, she’s ended up in the resuscitation unit 11 times. Her team of specialists tried more than 40 medication changes and a range of medical devices, but nothing succeeded in stabilizing her autoimmune reactions.

After two years of struggle, a nurse colleague suggested Mason contact Service Dogs of Virginia, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit that raises, trains, and places dogs to assist people with disabilities.

A dog might seem to be a strange solution to Mason’s health problems: Many people associate service dogs with “seeing eye” dogs that help the visually impaired (The Seeing Eye, the first guide dog training facility in the U.S., was founded in 1929). But while service dogs have been assisting the seeing- and hearing-impaired and the physically disabled for decades, in the last 10-15 years they have been trained to help with a much wider range of disabilities.

Medical alert dogs, for instance, take advantage of a dog’s highly developed sense of smell. Certain medical conditions produce a scent that humans can’t detect, but canines can; Sally Day, SDV’s director of development, says, “If you can isolate the scent, you can train the dog to it.” In 2003, for the first time, a dog was trained to recognize hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) by smell, making it possible to train alert dogs for diabetics whose blood sugar isn’t well controlled by other methods.

In Mason’s case, SDV was ready to help, although clearly the training would be a challenge: Dropping cortisol levels create a scent unique to that individual, which meant Mason had to allow herself to go into Addisonian crisis—actually send herself to the emergency room—in order to collect swabs with saliva samples to provide the precise scent needed for the dog’s training.

Mason still remembers meeting Irene, her golden Labrador. “This dog looked into my soul,” she says. In the first 12 months of their partnership, the dog’s alerts have been accurate every time—a phenomenal record—and Mason has been hospitalized only once. Having that security and confidence has helped stabilize Mason’s condition. She sleeps better at night; her husband works in the yard with confidence that she is being watched carefully; their children don’t check in fearfully every day. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the name Irene derives from the Greek word for peace.

Jessica Neal says Forest, a black Lab, helps keep her son Samuel safe in crowded places, and calms him down when he gets overwhelmed. Photo by Eze Amos

We know humans value animals just for their companionship: Two-thirds of American households, according to the most recent American Pet Products Association’s survey, include one or more pets, from cats and dogs to rabbits and reptiles. But the more researchers learn about human physiology and animal behavior, the more therapies are being developed that build on the special qualities of the human-animal bond. Here in the Charlottesville area, SDV is just one of many organizations that are harnessing the power of animal therapy to improve patients’ physical and mental health.

One of the newest frontiers in animal therapy, psychiatric service animals, is based on research showing that human-animal interaction lowers blood pressure and stress hormones, lights up the brain’s pleasure centers, and increases levels of oxytocin, the hormone that promotes bonding. Dogs are now trained to assist those with behavioral and mental health conditions ranging from autism to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jessica Neal’s son Samuel’s autism spectrum disorder causes major behavior issues that make daily living difficult not only for Sam, but for the whole family. In stressful situations, Sam is prone to run off, and in unfamiliar or crowded public spaces, Sam can get overwhelmed and act out. Neal, a single parent with two other sons, found the entire family was becoming more stressed and isolated. She contacted SDV with a simple goal: “I just want to do normal things with my family,” she said.  She waited six months for a black Labrador named Forest.

“Forest is the most chill dog ever,” Neal says. She is the dog’s handler, giving Forest cues and rewards as they work together to keep Sam safe and calm. While Neal holds Forest’s leash, Sam is connected to the dog by a vest/harness that allows the boy to move freely; if Sam starts to run, the 80-pound Lab simply lies down, keeping the child anchored while Neal can calm him. When Sam feels overwhelmed, Neal finds a quiet spot where the two can “pillow”—Forest lays down, with Sam leaning against him. If Sam is very agitated, they “hug”—Sam sits on the floor with Forest draped across his legs, and the dog’s warm, calming pressure (an established technique for lessening anxiety called deep touch pressure therapy) helps soothe the boy. And because autism, like PTSD and other psychiatric conditions, is an “invisible” disability, Forest in his service dog vest helps other people understand Sam’s behavior and needs.

The result has been not only a much more manageable life for Sam, now 11, but a more normal life for the entire family. Neal recalls taking the whole family to Disney World last Christmas, which would have been unthinkable before: “One of the greatest things Forest has given our family,” she says, “is memories.”

The canine ability to tune in to the unspoken emotional needs of humans is as important as the tasks service dogs perform. SDV’s Day points out that for many people with physical or psychiatric disabilities, social isolation can be an additional barrier. “If their dog can help them get out of the house, that’s a huge step.” Although service dogs are trained to ignore people and other dogs while working, dogs naturally draw people, which facilitates more social interaction and acceptance from the public.

This canine empathy makes dogs great candidates for animal-assisted therapy, in which a trained professional in mental health, physical therapy or occupational therapy uses the animal in specific ways. Catherine Erickson, trauma counselor at UVA’s Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, had been reading extensively about animal-assisted therapy. When she noticed that her adopted goldendoodle Poe, trained as a psychiatric service dog, was extraordinarily attuned to humans (“even at the dog park,” she says, “he focuses on the people”), Erickson proposed using him for therapy with her clients at the Women’s Center.

The dog’s mere presence can help reassure or ground a client. And Poe helps Erickson notice  when a client is feeling tense or frightened. Trauma survivors especially can have issues with trust and connection with other people, but Poe sits quietly, not judging, completely present and accepting. In fact, Poe has become so popular he has his own drop-in office hours—for both students and staff, who also enjoy a little canine time-out.

Riding horses at Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy gives clients the chance to exercise physical skills like posture, balance, and coordination, as well as develop an emotional connection with the animals. Photo by Eze Amos

Horses are another natural choice for animal-assisted therapy—they combine trainability with an innate ability to read human body language and mood. Riding, walking, or grooming a horse offers recreational, rehabilitative, and cognitive therapy for children and adults with physical, emotional, or developmental disabilities. A professionally certified instructor works with horses based on their calmness, responsiveness to direction, patience, and unflappability—a quality referred to, in both horses and dogs, as “bombproof.”

Sarah Daly, executive director at Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy and a certified therapeutic rider instructor, explains that sitting astride a horse provides exercise in posture, balance, and coordination; the animal’s motion mimics the joint movement and balance shifts a person’s body would get from walking. In addition, the sessions offer social interaction with other riders, outdoor activity, and confidence-building as the client learns to approach, mount, ride, lead, and just enjoy this large, gentle creature.

Daly has seen over and over how both children and adults respond to the horses, and how the animals can connect with them emotionally. In one group of troubled teens, she recalls, there was a boy who wasn’t interacting with anyone, at school or in therapy, and was openly negative about riding. The next week he came to the stable, walked into a stall, and crouched down in a tight ball in one corner. The horse came over to nuzzle his shoulder, and the boy began to sob. When the counselor came over to console him, the boy revealed a family member had been killed in an accident a short time before—he’d never spoken to anyone about it. “I start crying every time I tell that story,” says Daly.

Dorothy Gorman’s grandson Desmond is one of CART’s riders. Desmond, 10, has autism spectrum disorder; he’s nonverbal, has low muscle tone, and some sensory issues. But coming to CART is clearly fun—the boy recognizes Hope, his usual mount, and shows no hesitation about getting up on this big brown friend and going into the ring with the horse’s leader and volunteer sidewalkers. (Each rider has three attendants, to ensure safety for both rider and horse.) Gorman says riding has improved Desmond’s posture and core strength, and the exercise Daly has him doing, of alternately sitting on the saddle and standing up in the stirrups, has strengthened his legs to help in pedaling his bike.

Trainers and volunteers with the Keswick-based Love of Little Horses, which uses miniature horses as therapy animals. The horses’ small size and sweet natures make them less intimidating. Photo by Eze Amos

It’s the emotional reactions of humans to animals that has led to the development of therapy animals. Commonly used in group settings such as hospitals, schools, senior centers, and nursing homes, therapy animals (usually dogs or miniature horses) don’t do any special tasks—they simply provide comfort and ease loneliness. Therapy dogs can be any breed, but have to be calm, obedient, and social without being over-eager. Deven Gaston of Canine Campus, which offers both obedience and therapy certification prep courses, emphasizes that handler and dog must work as a team to ensure the safety and comfort of both dog and humans. People who want to train their pets as therapy animals, she says, “have to be deft at handling both people and the dog.”

John Williams and his golden retriever Sunny work at several sites around Charlottesville. In their weekly visits to Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, they stroll through administrative offices, wards, and the chemotherapy center, spending time with both staff and patients. Sunny approaches people calmly and stands while they pet him. “His job is to say hello and brighten people’s day,” says Williams. “That is why I called him Sunny.”

The Charlottesville area has several programs using miniature horses as therapy animals. Keswick-based Love of Little Horses has two teams: Minis on the Move, run by founder Nancy Wheeler, and A Little Magic, managed by Judy Rennyson. Rennyson says therapy horses, like dogs, “need to have the personality:” calm, gentle, patient, and people-oriented, with a high level of trust in their handlers. Their small size and sweet nature is an asset, Wheeler notes, since a horse that’s only waist-high is far less intimidating. Children want to walk them, groom them, put clips in their manes; clients with autism will touch, even drape themselves across the horse’s back; people in wheelchairs will reach out and hug the horse’s neck.

Then there is the newest category, for which almost any kind of animal can qualify: emotional support animals. The animal’s owner must be diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional as having a mental disability that significantly limits one or more major daily life activities, and for which the animal is a therapeutic aid. The ESA category is intended to allow people to have their designated animal in no-pet housing and on planes. Unfortunately, abuse of the ESA designation (e.g., the recent “emotional support peacock” news item) can hurt its credibility, and undercut the valid use of these animals for those with mental health disorders.

Dr. Adam Colbert, chief resident in the psychiatry department at UVA School of Medicine, is open to incorporating animals into his work with his patients—“it’s amazing how much the person’s walls come down.” The human-animal nonverbal connection is important, he says, especially for those with autism or attachment disorders. Colbert also sees benefits in the sense of responsibility that caring for an animal fosters; one of several examples he mentions is a patient who had trouble taking his medication regularly, but found having to feed and care for a hamster helped reinforce the discipline of taking his own medications.

Colbert, who had considered training as a veterinarian, recalls the human-animal bond being illustrated in one of his medical school courses, in which horses (“very intuitive animals,” he notes) helped teach future doctors the importance of non-verbal communication. Now Colbert is trying to raise awareness about these kinds of benefits among his medical colleagues, who are more likely to know about physical assistance dogs. SDV’s Day says almost all their inquiries come from people who have been referred by friends or done internet research: “Doctors often see the benefit once the patient gets a dog.” Daly at CART does get referrals from physical and occupational therapists, as well as over the transom.

Colbert and Erickson are familiar with a range of research findings in physiology and neurobiology showing the positive benefits of animal-human interaction. Other studies into social and quality-of-life aspects show having a pet fosters social interaction and reduces feelings of loneliness or isolation. Erickson mentions increasing levels of social detachment and anxiety in our society, citing factors from social media to gun violence; in contrast, “touching an animal activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us,” she says. “We all need attachment—and, while we wouldn’t want them to replace human connection, animals are a good place to start.”

Everyone involved in this work—from service dog partners and disabled riders to the trainers, handlers, and therapists—has so many stories about the physical, health, and emotional benefits of animal therapies. Researchers will continue to find out more about the whys and hows of human-animal interaction, but miniature horse handler Rennyson explains it simply: “It’s the living breathing animal that makes this work.”

Author’s Note: For feline fans, cats can make wonderful companions, emotional support animals, and (if naturally calm and social) therapy animals. But for evolutionary and biological reasons, they are not as easily trained or as attuned to human emotions as are dogs and horses. As even us cat-lovers admit, our cats would do anything for us—when they feel like it.

Where to find help

One of the challenges in the new and evolving field of service animals is that there is no one organization credentialing the animals—or their trainers. Here are some guidelines:

Service Dogs

There are several organizations online that will “register” a service dog, but the ADA does not require registration (or even that the animal wear a vest or other identification). Think carefully about claims to train your current pet as a service animal; many wonderful companion animals just aren’t suited for service dog work.

The following are the organizations in Virginia certified through Assistance Dogs International,
the largest global service dog

Service Dogs of Virginia, Charlottesville, servicedogsva.org, 295-9503

St. Francis Service Dogs, Roanoke, saintfrancisdogs.org, (540) 342-DOGS (3647)

Mutts with a Mission, Portsmouth
(for military veterans), muttswithamission.org, (757) 465-1033

Therapeutic Riding Programs

Look for instructors certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.

Charlottesville Area Riding Therapy, Crozet, cartcrozet.org, 823-1178

Ride With Pride, Staunton, ridewith prideva.org, (540) 255-2210

Heartland Horse Heroes, Buckingham, heartlandhorseheroes.com, 983-8181


Therapy Animals 

Love of Little Horses, Keswick, lovelittlehorses.org, 540-272-5267

For therapy dogs, look for programs providing evaluation through Pet Partners, the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, or Therapy Dogs International.

Canine Campus, Charlottesville, caninecampus.wpengine.com,

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