Teaching new dogs old tricks: Why pet therapy continues to work

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CHICAGO -- The benefits of pet therapy are well-documented. It’s been around for decades and is now in widespread use at many hospitals.

In recent years, doctors have found new areas of effectiveness from the practice. Two of its local pioneers are still going strong, teaching new dogs old tricks because they still work.

With Abbey the therapy dog as a welcome distraction, 6-year-old Isabella Martinez isn’t thinking about the surgical procedure she’s about to undergo at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge. She’s plotting all she can do with this specially-trained spaniel. Just watching pet therapy in action is comforting for Isabella’s parents.

“This helps tremendously. It eases us, it gives us peace of mind and also her. She was a little nervous, and now, she’s not even thinking of what’s gonna go on," Isabella's father Mario said.

Susan Burrows is program coordinator for Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy, a non-profit organization with volunteers and therapy animals working in over 100 Chicago area hospitals. Burrows says therapy dogs are well-aware of their roles, and the joy is never one-sided.

“A dog can’t be an effective therapy dog unless they love what they’re doing. Abbey loves what she’s doing. She loves coming here. Her tail wags from the minute she knows we’re coming through the door. She loves interacting with the patients," Burrows said.

Chloe the Portuguese water dog loves the job, too. On this day, she’s visiting 6-year-old oncology patient Deshaun Davis. Nurses say he doesn’t smile or walk around too often, but Chloe and therapist Barbara Lulias manage to get him to do both.

“Once people see the benefit of the dogs with the patients, they can see the change, it helps to lower their blood pressure. Dogs are able to have children especially do things that nurses and therapists can not do,” Lulias said.

Matthew Cooper, 10, looks forward to his visits with Abbey, even though it can be bittersweet.

“It reminds me of my dog," he said. “She passed away this summer.”

Therapists say the simple act of petting can relieve stress. Demand for pet therapy services is higher than ever since the benefits are not limited to patients in hospitals.

“Schools with kids with autism, retirement homes, nursing homes, kids with behavior problems or adults. A recognizable benefit to people across the world," Burrows said.

But it’s tough to tell who benefits most.

“I hope it’s the patient, but it is me, too. And the dog," Burrows said.

The Rainbow program has more than 250 therapy teams but it’s still tough to keep up with demand. So they offer special training classes for potential volunteers and therapy pets. It isn't limited to dogs or particular breeds, the pet just has to be obedient. Some highly obedient dogs can be trained to work exclusively with patients in wheelchairs or specific disabilities.

For more information, go to rainbowaat.org.

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