Animal Assisted Therapy: Special Medication on Four Legs

Marleen Norman with Boudreax and a resident at the Jewish Home for the Aged. (Photograph courtesy of Alain McLaughlin)


Lying in his bed on the Kaiser Hospital pediatric ward, the little boy was crying and agitated, despite the best efforts of his parents and medical staff to console him. He was connected to a monitor which indicated that his blood pressure and heart rate were elevated.

In walked a bouncy Tibetan Terrier dog accompanied by his guardian, one of the volunteer teams from the San Francisco SPCA Animal Assisted Therapy program. The dog was placed on the bed and immediately began to nuzzle the child, whose mood and demeanor brightened noticeably. The attending nurse glanced up at the monitor and was amazed at the improvement in the child’s vital signs. The staff later reported that the boy was still smiling and happy one hour after the visit.

The staff at the skilled nursing facility was concerned that one of the residents, a woman in her late 80’s, was unresponsive and noncommunicative since she was admitted three months earlier. Upon spotting the AAT volunteer team, she reached out her arms to the animal therapist and cooed, “Come here, baby.” As she cuddled the dog’s face in her hands, she became much more animated and began to talk to him as she would to a beloved grandchild.

For the past 33 years, the Animal Assisted Therapy Program of the San Francisco SPCA with its teams of volunteers and animal therapists have been brightening the lives of those persons choosing to participate. About 265 human-companion animal teams from the AAT program serve more than 80,000 San Franciscans (about 10 percent of the city’s population) annually through 300 visits per month to hospitals, nursing homes, pediatric facilities, after-school programs, inpatient and outpatient psychiatric facilities, schools and homeless shelters.

The vast majority of the participating animals are dogs, but also include two rabbits, five cats and one bird, according to Jennifer Emmert, AAT programs manager.

The value of the human-animal bond has been well-documented both by scientific research and hands-on experience. The Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University in Indiana defines the bond as “the dynamic relationship between people and animals, in that each influences the psychological and physiological state of the other.”

The benefits of this bond include: Reduced depression, anxiety stress and reliance on pain medication; a lowered heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones; a greater sense of well being; and relieving the feeling of social isolation of many persons who, due to either age or infirmity, are restricted to their homes, and have no relatives living nearby.

Tom Benson, a therapist at the Langley-Porter Psychiatric Hospital of UCSF Medical Center, said: “We observe depressed, withdrawn patients become increasingly animated, joyful and engaged during AAT visits. These visits are a beautiful means of helping the patient reconnect with the reality of here and now through interacting with a safe and friendly animal.”

In recent years AAT has expanded its community outreach program to act as stress reducers for high school, university and professional school students who face tremendous pressure from studying for final exams. Chuck Marcus, faculty services librarian at U.C. Hastings Law School, said the students tell him how much they appreciate the visits and how much it reduces stress during finals week: “They always tell me how much they enjoy petting the dogs and that it gives them a pleasant respite from studying, and the staff enjoys the visits as much as the students.”

A relatively new addition to the services provided by AAT is a Puppy Dog Tales program, designed to improve reading skills to children for whom English is a second language or who have learning disabilities that place them at a disadvantage in their school work. Volunteers who participate in this program work closely with schools and libraries to encourage a love of reading in children and to boost their confidence.

By reading aloud to the dogs, students are able to overcome their fear of failure when they are often too shy or anxious to read to an adult. The ATT volunteer teams work with four to six children in sessions that last from six weeks to one year. Each of the students read to the therapy dogs for 15 to 20 minutes. Results have shown that, while warming up to the canine companions, they begin to show results almost immediately and the children realize that reading can be fun.

Catherine Starr, children’s librarian at the Noe Valley Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, said “The SFSPCA generated Puppy Dogs Tales Program is nothing but stellar.”

“Noe Valley Branch Library has hosted a PDT dog-owner therapy team since 2012,” Starr said. “The dog’s sweet nature, coupled with his owner’s expertise as reading specialist, ensure confidence and joy among our child readers. Those who experience the program beg to come back!”

Two years ago AAT and the San Francisco Airport started the WAG program which was designed to relieve the stress of travelers during and beyond the holiday season. Dogs and their guardian handlers were specially trained by AAT to walk the terminals to make travel an enjoyable experience. The dogs wear a vest that says, “Pet me.”

Marleen Norman. a 10-year volunteer, said she has found her experience with AAT to be very rewarding. “I’m truly inspired when I see how much people with physical or mental impairments benefit from visits with my dog,” Norman said.

For more information, call (415) 554-3060 or e-mail att@sfspca.org.

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