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dog days

Man's best friend puts
some heart into healing


August 2003

by Anne-Kathleen Kreger

Darcy proudly struts into the rehabilitation room at IHS (Integrated Health Services) Hospital, as he has every Thursday morning for the past year. He is glad to be back at work, and the smiles on his patients’ faces show this feeling is mutual.

Because of Darcy’s reputation for helping patients, a visitor has come to observe his therapy sessions. The visitor is a student from the Health Science Center’s School of Nursing, but Darcy is not a nurse, nor a physician, nor even a therapist. He is a seven-year-old Norwich terrier.

Nursing student Melissa Grimmitt is enrolled in the Health Science Center’s animal-assisted therapy course, developed and taught by Linda Porter, R.N., M.S.N. Today Grimmitt witnesses in person what she has only heard about in class: the human-animal bond.

Darcy and his trainer, Carlynn Ricks, team up with registered occupational therapist Kathleen Valdez and patient Aaron Saenz. A central nervous system disorder has caused pain and weakness in Saenz’s right leg. Saenz experiences difficulty walking, standing and completing daily tasks, such as getting dressed.

Grasping his walker, Saenz bends to place a Cheerio on his right foot. Darcy, watching intently, is seated in front of him. Now standing, eyes fixed on Darcy, Saenz slowly lifts his right leg and works to hold it in place. This is challenging for Saenz – the strain on his face is evidence of that – but he is determined to make Darcy wait to pounce on the Cheerio. When Saenz tires, he gradually lowers his leg, and his strained voice commands, "Okay!"

Darcy darts forward and takes the Cheerio; Saenz smiles and laughs. "With regular therapy, it is work, work, work. With Darcy, it is work – but also fun," he says.

What appears to be all play really is therapy. According to Valdez, this activity helps Saenz develop trunk flexion and control, standing balance, quadriceps and hamstring muscle strength, and speech volume, projection and clarity.

Darcy motivates patients and adds more of a challenging aspect. "Many patients will work longer and harder with Darcy," Valdez said. "And sometimes it’s easier to listen to a barking object than a barking person."

Grimmitt can see the benefits of an alternative to traditional therapy. "Patients enjoy animal-assisted therapy because it is fun and a break from routine rehab," she said.

But the role of animals in therapy extends beyond that of "motivator" and "diversion," said Grimmit’s instructor, Porter, assistant professor in the School of Nursing. Studies have shown that petting a dog can decrease blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety. Petting an animal is also a tactile sensation that can help patients with mental illness focus outwardly and interact socially. Animals can break down barriers and provide patients with needed unconditional acceptance.

Porter has been teaching the animal-assisted therapy elective for four years.
The Health Science Center’s School of Nursing is the only nursing school in Texas that offers a course like this. Porter is the regional expert on the subject and is often invited to share her knowledge at regional and national conferences.

Compared to similar courses in the nation, Porter’s course is uniquely comprehensive. She introduces students to the history and theory behind the human-animal bond and reviews research and case studies. In addition to coordinating guest speakers and addressing related ethical and legal issues, she shares her own animal-assisted therapy experiences and successes.

"The therapist can use the animal as a conduit," Porter explained. In her private psychotherapy practice, she has found that when she and her clients walk her dogs in the park, the clients are relaxed and more willing to share. Her golden retriever, Cyrano, even has an e-mail address. Patients view this as a safe outlet through which to share their feelings.

Porter also teaches students how health care professionals use other animals – cats, birds, horses, guinea pigs, reptiles and even dolphins – in therapy.

During one class session, Porter’s ranch becomes a classroom, and students explore the ways horses can be used to benefit patients physiologically and psychosocially.

Students learn the fundamentals of hippotherapy, or how a person who is disabled can benefit from the multi-dimensional movement of a horse. Porter also demonstrates an exercise with the horses that helps young girls – particularly those who have been victims of abuse – learn to control their situations by being aware of and anticipating body language.

Ultimately, Porter emphasizes that the health care professional is responsible for determining which treatments will be most effective for each individual patient. Porter hopes her students will recognize animal-assisted therapy as one viable option.

"Animals truly provide a bridge for us," said Porter.

And that bridge is an important one. As we prepare for health care of the future, we search for ways to improve traditional patient care, as well as new ways to treat patients who do not respond to traditional methods. Porter is leading the way in equipping future health care professionals with one more important tool.

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Updated 12/11/14