Animal Assisted Therapy at BCTC

Recently, my mom told a good family friend about the walk.  Donna Richardson has known me since I was a young boy, and it was wonderful to reconnect with her and introduce her to Kait.  Our project struck her as something worth supporting, and she has offered to help us in any way possible.

Donna runs Richardson’s Feed and Pet Center in Shepherdsville, KY, and is helping us research dog foods and nutrition.  She also introduced us to her friend Leslie, who works with Pawsibilities Unleashed.  Based in Frankfort, KY, Pawsibilities specializes in training household pets, therapy dogs, and service dogs to offer the best companionship and support possible.  At Leslie’s request, Kait and I wrote letters to the advisory board of the Bluegrass Community and Technical College in support of an Animal Assisted Therapy certificate program.  We shared our stories of the overwhelmingly positive effect our dogs have had in our lives, and the joy and comfort they have given others in their short time as therapy dogs.  From Kait’s letter:

…The people being visited feel out of their element and a dog has an amazing ability to bring some normalcy and comfort to almost any situation.  Dogs are the first animals that humans domesticated, over 15,000 years ago.  Humans and canines have co-evolved ever since.  Dogs have always been an important part of human life and no amount of technology, intelligence, or industrialization can change that.  However, as can also be said about love, it can be difficult to scientifically measure the impact and importance of having animals in our lives.

What research has told us is that there are numerous health benefits gained from the presence of a companion animal or therapy dog.  They reduce stress, lower blood pressure, decrease pain, release endorphins, and generally raise morale.  Therapy Dogs have proven themselves to be particularly helpful with patients struggling with cardiac issues, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and in hospice work.  Interestingly, it isn’t just the patients that have noticed the effects of therapy dogs.  Family of the ill, doctors, and other hospital staff have all reported feeling happier and more at ease.  The therapy dogs are clearly not just for the patients and residents, but for staff, family, and anyone else present.  This phenomenon has also been reported by companies like Google who offer a dog-friendly workplace.  Interestingly, these offices also reported a rise in productivity after adopting a dog-friendly policy.

Working as a Pet Therapy volunteer has been incredibly rewarding for both myself and my dog.  The results are  immediate, evident, and lasting.  We are told again and again that students, residents, and visitors alike look forward to our visits every week.  Even Alzheimer’s patients remember us on occasion.  It is difficult for a person to be ill and vulnerable, and the concern and judgment from others can be scary and saddening.  A dog doesn’t know or care about your illness, bank account, what you look like, or where you came from.  They give their love genuinely and unconditionally.

Leslie was so moved by what we wrote that she invited us to a meeting with the BCTC Advisory Board to discuss the benefits of pet therapy.  We drove to Lexington last week to join the meeting, and what we learned is truly inspirational.  The proposed degree program would provide an opportunity for students with a passion for working with animals and people to learn structured methodologies for training therapy and service dogs and applying these methods in medical and educational settings.  It would provide them with a broad knowledge of canine psychology and behavior, and give them the education necessary to understand the needs and applications of different forms of animal-assisted therapy. Perhaps most importantly, it would provide a collegiate path to paying positions in animal-assisted therapy, for the benefits of humans and canines alike.

Max therapizing some board members during the meeting

Liz Norris, a founder of Pawsibilities Unleashed, has made training and providing therapy and service dogs her life’s work.  She spoke at great length about the many ways that animal-assisted therapy is developing, and educated her audience on the wide-reaching applications of such training.  She gave many examples of cases where children with developmental and behavioral disorders had made little or no progress after months – sometimes years – of traditional physical and psychological therapy.  In these cases, she was able to apply animal-assisted therapy techniques to achieve significant progress – often in as little as 20 minutes.  The accounts she gave were astounding and truly inspirational.

Grace, listening intently

Therapy dogs can be trained to “nanny” autistic children, who are often prone to running off and fits of agitation.  By essentially tethering the child to a properly trained dog, they simultaneously have a comfort animal to help them with stress management, and they are prevented from running away unattended – the dogs will even prevent them from running into traffic!  Obviously, this type of work is especially suitable for large and gentle breeds.

Dogs can also be trained to provide monitoring of many prevalent health conditions.  Using scent training, dogs can learn to alert people who suffer from conditions like epilepsy and diabetes.  During the board meeting, Leslie got up to do a demonstration with her 120 lb. Newfoundland, Bella.  As soon as she stood, however, Bella jumped up and gently put her paws on Leslie’s shoulders, encouraging to her to sit down.  At first, I thought Bella was just a little excited.  She had seemed a bit agitated through the whole meeting, and I assumed she was just being a handful – after all, her vest did say she was “in training.”  But Leslie, blushing a little, informed the board that she is diabetic, and Bella is trained to alert her anytime her blood sugar drops to a dangerous level.  She had forgotten to eat dinner, and wasn’t feeling well – and Bella did her job perfectly, alerting Leslie to the nature of the problem.  Kait stepped out and brought Leslie an appropriate snack, and Bella noticeably settled down, curling up at Leslie’s feet.  Needless to say, I was moved to tears.  Although I know Leslie felt embarrassed, she could not have asked for a better example of why this type of work is so important.


Kait and I put in our two cents and shared our experiences with Pet Therapy.  The board asked many questions about the viability and applications of such a degree, and the response felt overwhelmingly positive.  It was an honor to be invited as speakers, and we left with our heads full of inspiration and new possibilities for the future.

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