ENHANCING THE QUALITY OF LIFE THROUGH THE HUMAN-ANIMAL BOND
About Pet Therapy
A hand reaches out, a wagging tail approaches, and an elderly face breaks into a smile. It's a scene that's increasingly common in the Helena Valley, thanks to volunteers from the Helena Chapter of Intermountain Therapy Animals. Activity directors and health care professionals report that visiting pets reach nursing home residents, hospital patients, retirement home residents and adult day care participants in ways that other therapeutic activities can't.
The contact may be brief, but it brightens the entire day or week, especially for those who have had pets in the past. In some cases, an animal's visit is transforming. Shy, withdrawn, or depressed people find themselves in animated conversation, angry people relax, and those with memory lapses share detailed recollections of pets they lived with years before. Visiting pets have reached autistic children, stroke victims, Alzheimer's patients, and other "unreachables." Even when nothing dramatic happens, pet visits are important changes of pace for facility residents, bringing excitement, affection, comfort, physical contact and joy.
In addition, to providing companionship (called Animal Assisted Activity), visiting pets sometimes participate in a facility's therapy program. In Animal Assisted Therapy, a dog might stand while a patient brushes him order to exercise specific arm muscles, or a cat might visit a depressed patient to encourage conversation, or someone in speech therapy might give commands to a dog that does tricks or retrieves objects. Anyone who loves animals is likely to work harder and feel more motivated when one is part of the therapy team.
Cats, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, and even miniature horses can be registered therapy animals, but most of our visiting pets are dogs. We welcome all breeds and sizes. Before pets and their owners or handlers are accepted as volunteers, they go through training and testing. In addition to a veterinary exam showing that an animal is in excellent health and well groomed, the pet is evaluated for temperament, disposition, and personality, Visiting pets should be friendly, fond of people, calm, and comfortable in new situations. Dogs and their handlers are also tested for basic obedience. We cannot accept animals that are aggressive toward people or other animals, dogs that jump or bark, or animals that are not under their handler's control.
Our program satisfies community service requirements for scouting, high school, and other service programs.
Volunteers without pets are welcome too. We welcome “escorts” to accompany visiting pet teams, show photographs, chat with residents, carry coats, open doors, and help make visits more rewarding. When a single animal visits a group, escorts help everyone participate even though only one person at a time is petting the animal.
It is a joy to see frowns turn into smiles and to see sad or depressed people laugh and hold out their hands in greeting when they see our visiting pets. Pet therapy is one of the most exciting rewarding and effective volunteer programs in America. Please join us!