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A Furry Cure-All

The dramatic difference therapy animals make.



Douglas Foulke

Dogs are not just man’s best friend, but also can be human’s best medicine. Corporal William Wynne of Ohio and his Yorkshire Terrier Smoky may have been the first therapy team to prove this fact. During World War II, Smoky, alongside Corporal Wynn, brought canine comfort to wounded soldiers on the battlefield and in hospitals. It’s been known for decades that the simple presence of a loving dog at a scene of chaos and sadness does wonders for improving morale and soothing anguish.

Sadly, there have been a few incidences close to home in which emergency therapy dog services were needed. After the senseless murder of student Maren Sanchez at Jonathan Law High School in Milford this past April, the Board of Education contacted the country’s largest animal therapy organization, Pet Partners of Bellevue, Washington, asking the organization to send local teams to aid in comforting the grief-stricken students and teachers.

By the time school re-opened, one such team, Dennis Gallagher of Monroe, and his therapy collie Dani, visited every day for a week, encouraging kids to pet and hug this docile and compassionate pup. The teams had such an impact on healing in the community that Milford Mayor Ben Blake issued a special proclamation honoring Pet Partners and its teams. 

When the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred, Gallagher was asked by the Newtown librarian to “station himself” there for set hours with his older dog, Gracie, a nine-year-old collie. Families came every day, sometimes holding the holiday parties they couldn’t have at their school in the calming presence of Gracie. “There is so much pain, sadness, and tension in these situations,” explains Dennis. “And when Gracie or Dani show up, the tone of the room changes. People can laugh, they can talk more easily.” Dennis and his dogs still regularly visit Newtown where they forged permanent bonds.

While a working therapy dog is often on call for special assignments during crises, these cherished pets usually have weekly “jobs.” Gallagher and Dani were recently invited to launch a program with the University of Bridgeport this fall. Every Tuesday afternoon, Gallagher and Dani visit the counseling center then walk through different parts of the campus, stopping wherever they are needed. “Having them come relieves so much stress for the students,” explains Jessica Mills, Director of Counseling Services at University of Bridgeport. “They may miss their dog at home, their family, or be stressed about school work. No matter what, it makes everyone feel better to spend some time with Dani.”

Dennis also visits Bridgeport Hospital on Friday nights, moving from the ER to pediatrics, then to the oncology unit. “Everyone lights up when they see her,” explains Dennis, “She has so much compassion, and she makes people feel better. Once she went straight over to a woman who was crying—her son had been injured–and she nuzzled in her lap. It is truly amazing to watch the interactions and the positive response that she elicits.”

Research supports Dennis’ observations. Petting a dog, or even talking to one, lowers the heart rate, reduces blood pressure and lessens anxiety by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood. A study of heart attack patients published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 1995 found dog owners were six times more likely to survive an additional year than patients who didn’t have dogs. Another program Dennis and Dani participate in is READ with Inter-Mountain Therapy Animals, where young reluctant readers read to Dani during short time blocks at the Monroe library. Studies involving children have shown that they are less shy when in the presence of a therapy dog, and will usually talk more openly.

“A therapy animal is a pet that is owned by someone who uses the animal to provide comfort, motivation, and entertainment to the general public,” explains Paula Scott of Pet Partners. There are many therapy dog organizations in America, but Pet Partners is the only one that oversees therapy teams that include other animals, namely cats, horses, rabbits, and even llamas. Gallagher is also a Pet Partners “evaluator” so he helps other teams become certified.

Why can’t you just take your well-behaved dog and walk into a hospital? “For starters, you need insurance in case anything happens,” says Dennis. “And organizations usually require some kind of certification to enter the premises with any animal.” Dennis’ day job is at Mortgage Master in Fairfield. “I started doing therapy work with my dogs as a way to alleviate my own stress, while giving back and sharing my dogs’ compassion with people who need her.” 

There are very few therapy dog teams in our area. Think your dog might have the right stuff? “Any well-behaved dog, and an owner who has good control, can be eligible if they wish to embark on the road to becoming a therapy team,” says Gallagher. “So many of us have pets that we love and we train, why not share the joy with others?” 

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January 2019

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