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Published September 11, 2010, 11:42 AM

Paws up for pet therapy

Animal companions are a very important part of many of our lives. When we can no longer live with or care for them, our happiness, energy, stress levels and health can be affected.

By: Story and Photography by J.L. Kuhlman, Living North

Animal companions are a very important part of many of our lives. When we can no longer live with or care for them, our happiness, energy, stress levels and health can be affected. For those in nursing home, rehabilitation facilities, assisted living residences, group homes and day service centers, pet visits are delightful - even coveted - events.

Most residential facilities in our area allow pet visits. Some have official pet therapy, while others have informal visits. The pets allowed to visit have a few universal requirements: a record of regular health check-ups with required vaccinations; good temperament and behavior history; and good grooming and hygiene. And, of course, the pets must be housebroken.

For some facilities the visits are as nonchalant as a staff member bringing

a lap dog to work, as explained by a staff member at Stardusk House in

Superior, an assisted living facility for “ladies of a certain age.” “The women here love it,” said the staff member simply.

The Challenge Center in Superior has an occasional visit to their Sensory

Stimulation department by staff member Julie Zastera and her little dog,

Eddie. “Eddie loves people. And he’s not afraid of the equipment or the

wheelchairs,” said Julie. Eddie, a medium-sized, long-haired, mixed-breed

pooch is a notorious snuggler. He loves to give kisses.

Julie takes a few special precautions when she brings Eddie for visits.

One department has clients who are very afraid of dogs. Other clients in the building may love Eddie but get a little over-excited to see him. “It can be difficult to get some clients back on task. This is a big problem,” says Julie. “The Challenge Center is not just a day services center for people with disabilities, it is an employer. If Eddie distracts the workers, and they cannot complete their assigned tasks, it interrupts the whole operation.”

Julie’s remedy, “Before I even bring Eddie into the building, I go

to each department and let the staff know he’ll be there.” This is

not to say that the other clients miss out on pet visits entirely. Each

person at the Challenge Center either lives independently, with his

or her family, or in a group home. Most of them have ample opportunity

to interact with animals outside of work.

Villa Marina Health and Rehabilitation Center in Superior has some formal and some informal pet visits. On an informal basis, if a resident or resident’s family has an animal, they are welcome to bring it to visit. Most often people bring in dogs, but on occasion a resident will have a cat come to visit. Cats have special rules in Villa Marina. The cat must be securely in a cage until they reach the resident’s room. Once the door of the individual resident’s room is closed, the cat can be released.

On occasion, Villa Marina will have a visit from a horse, courtesy of Raindance Farms in South Range, Wis. In the past they’ve even had goats come to visit. What do the residents think of the variety of animals? “Pets and children are the greatest positive influences that can be brought into a nursing home,” says Amy McKenzie, activity director at Villa Marina.

The most popular pet visit at Villa Marina happens the first and third Wednesday of every month. Beginning after lunch, the buzz begins. “It’s pet day. Did you know it’s pet day?” As Nancy and Billybob enter Villa Marina, it is rumored that an observer will see wheelchairs headed to rooms, not out of fear, but because the residents want to have Billy all to

themselves.

During a typical visit, Billybob leads the way. He knows where to go, who likes pet visits, which room is next. For some of the visits, Billy and Nancy have a regular routine. Nancy sits on the edge of the bed and Billybob awaits Nancy’s command. “Paws Up!” Billy puts both front paws on

Nancy’s knee and Nancy bends to hoist him onto the bed. This is no small task. Billybob, a Miniature Schnauzer, weighs 29 pounds, nearly twice the average weight for his breed. But Billybob is no chunky puppy. He is a strong little man.

For the past 14 years Nancy Mennes, often known only as The Dog Lady, has participated in a program by the name of Therapy Dogs International. Billybob has been her partner for the past five years, and he’s been in the business since he was just a year old. As Nancy says, “Billy is a natural therapy dog. This is not unusual since therapy dogs are born, not made.”

According to Therapy Dogs International’s website, any kind of dog can be a therapy dog. When Therapy Dogs International does testing for therapy dog registration, they observe the natural temperament of the dog, how the dog and handler interact with each other and the dog’s behavior around people using certain medical devices (i.e. wheelchairs, walkers, etc.)

Currently, Billybob and Nancy have volunteer obligations of around 15 visits per month. These visits include three local nursing homes and an elementary school. Each nursing home visit lasts around three hours on a regular day, but preparation, including a bath, means several additional hours invested.

So when Nancy and Billybob visit Mary Olson, Billy waits for Nancy’s command, gets hoisted to the bed and then adjusts himself on Nancy’s lap so his front paws are on Mary’s wheelchair. Billybob would be happy to stay with Mary for the entire visit. Her loving head scratches nearly put him to sleep. “He reminds me of a dog I used to have,” says Mary.

“Does that make you sad?” asks Nancy.

“No. Not really. It just makes me like Billybob more,” replies Mary. “He’s a good dog.”

Moments like this are what pet therapy is all about.

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