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Critter cure
Animals trained to be a calming friend for those in need

Photos by Dan Bishop

November 2013

Laura Hey and her dog Jasper work as a team for Health Heelers.

Sam was 26 years old, in graduate school on the West Coast, struggling with a complicated mental illness known as schizoaffective disorder. He’d been hospitalized three times for being suicidal.

"I was in an abysmal place mentally," he recalls.

So in the fall of 2011, hoping to find the right combination of medication and therapy, he returned home to the Milwaukee area.

Flash forward two years and Sam is back in grad school, grateful for those who steered him through the rough waters. He keeps a photo on his desk of one special helper: a black Labrador named Benny.

Benny and owner Kari Schmidt became part of Sam’s therapy team through Wauwatosa-based Pets Helping People Inc.

"I think it’s an extraordinary program," says Sam, who wishes to remain confidential. Nationwide, more than 100 organizations train dogs and other animals and make them available to hospitals, rehab clinics, elder-care and hospice facilities, libraries and schools. Disaster stress relief dogs have responded at the sites of natural disasters and tragedies such as the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

Benny himself is a survivor — adopted from the Wisconsin Humane Society after four months in a Tennessee shelter that had become overcrowded due to Hurricane Katrina.

Schmidt, who lives in the North Shore, is a nurse by training. In her dealings with Sam, though, her role was to provide stability to Sam by bringing Benny for weekly visits.

It may have seemed like a tall order at first. Sam’s disorder caused him to be withdrawn. He’d never owned a pet. The plan: Schmidt and Sam would spend the first 30 minutes of their meetings just talking — with Benny nearby — and the second half-hour on a walk with Benny.

"At the end of the first meeting, I gave Benny his liver treats and he instantly bonded with me, I felt," says Sam. "It definitely was a little unexpected to have an immediate connection with not only a dog, but somebody else’s dog."

Sam eagerly anticipated their weekly get-togethers. Typical dog behaviors such as napping and responding to noises gave Sam something to talk about. On their walks, Sam took the leash, but Benny was always in charge, tugging to smell flowers or meet another dog.

"Kari and I would talk during the walks, but the walks were really between me and Benny, I felt," says Sam.

Schmidt and Benny are among more than 250 teams handler/dog teams that have been trained by Pets Helping People. The organization was founded in 1998 on the belief that "lives are changed when you pair a cold nose and a wagging tail with a human being," says Terry Heun, executive director.

According to Heun and other pet therapy organizations, animals can assist in lowering blood pressure and heart rate, improve classroom focus, reduce the perception of pain and create a less-stressful environment.

In 2008, Heun launched the pet therapy program at Aurora Psychiatric Hospital, where handler/dog teams visit patients and attend support group discussions. At one such gathering, Heun marveled at the clients’ enthusiasm for the therapy dogs. "One person after another said, ‘They make me laugh,’ ‘They accept me for who I am,’ or ‘They keep me focused on the here and now,’" says Heun. Unconditional acceptance is recognized in psychotherapy as a catalyst for change, she adds.

Mike Grassel of Brookfield is a Pets Helping People volunteer with his poodle/bichon Phoebe. For Grassel, it’s a way to give back to patients at Curative Care Network. He received therapy services there while recovering from a serious brain injury sustained in a car accident.

"Phoebe pulls me with her leash all the way to the front door and just dances around," says Grassel. "She’s excited to see people, but then she calms down and lets them hold her or pet her. She knows who likes to get kisses and who just wants to hug her."

The need for therapy dog teams is growing, according to Oak Creek dog trainer Linda M. Bobot, who owns Guardian Angels Service and Therapy Dogs.

"Our lifestyles today are very different than even 50 years ago," she explains. "Many more people are isolated, living long-term in facilities, needing to be noticed, wanting to touch and be touched" and therapy animals can fill that role.

Laura Hey has taken the concept in another direction since launching Health Heelers in 2005. She trains handler/dog teams to work closely with physical, occupational and speech therapists on specific rehabilitation goals such as reaching, stretching, walking, fine-motor skills and articulation. It’s called animal-assisted therapy.

"It changes the environment," says Hey, whose clients have included the Milwaukee Center for Independence and Head Start. "Therapy becomes fun. People will say, ‘We’re done already?’ and they’ve been at it for 45 minutes already."

Working from a 100-year-old barn in Menomonee Falls, Health Heelers has trained more than 70 handler/dog teams. It also trains bunnies, and has five of its cats among the just 200 felines nationwide that are registered as therapy animals.

As for Sam, he lives in an apartment that doesn’t permit pets, and says, "Any chance I get to interact with a dog or cat, I go for it." He recommended Pets Helping People to a friend who was experiencing depression.

Sam does say that he was able to find the right medication for himself around the same time he met Benny, but adds he’s not sure where he’d be now if Benny hadn’t been part of his treatment.

"I would definitely be in a worse place, if I was around at all," he says. "I can’t emphasize enough how helpful it was to have that contact, that love with Benny and to have that regularity every week."

Think your dog has what it takes to become a therapy animal?

You’ll need to take him to a screening for basic skills and temperament. Obedience counts, and evaluators watch how the owner corrects any bad behaviors. Handlers generally must be 18 or older, and dogs have to be at least 1 year old.

Fewer than half of dogs make the cut. Those who do take an intensive four-week course, with homework.

"It takes a very unique animal, and more than just a friendly animal," says Laura Hey of Health Heelers. "They have to be able to tolerate unfamiliar places, lots and lots of strangers, scents and sounds and stimulation. There are a lot of demands on these animals."

Any breed or mix is OK, but "some dogs just aren’t wired for this," cautions Terry Heun of Pets Helping People. "They would do much better at flyball or agility."

For dogs who do earn certification, the rewards can go beyond a biscuit and a pat on the head. The American Kennel Club awards its Therapy Dog title to dogs who have performed 50 or more community visits. Good boy!

— Cathy Breitenbucher



This story ran in the November 2013 issue of: