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Exploring The Pawsitive Benefits Of Animal Therapy

Animal Therapy

Organizations all around the Tri-State area are putting pets to work with encouraging results.

by Jane Schmidt and photos by Turner Photography Studio

“Happiness is a warm puppy,” wrote “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz. The well-known cartoon accompanying Schulz’ caption illustrates evident bliss on Charlie Brown’s face while hugging his beloved dog, Snoopy. In hindsight, the cartoon can be deemed a somewhat groundbreaking idea, as it has since been proven that animals offer many positive benefits to people of all ages facing a wide variety of physical, mental, and emotional health obstacles.

It’s worth noting that therapy animals differ from service animals. Therapy animals aren’t trained to perform specific jobs and don’t get special exception recognition reserved for certified service animals. Therapy animals provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement and nursing homes, schools, hospices, people with learning difficulties, and those in stressful situations through friendly, non-judgmental interactions.

Animal therapy has been proven to offer people many benefits. It can lower blood pressure and increase endorphin production, which helps alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and boost your mood in the right direction. Animal therapy can also increase confidence and build literacy skills. It helps alleviate loneliness and isolation, including providing sparks that ignite memories and feelings for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Additionally, animal therapy offers many emotional and cognitive benefits, including relationship building, problem solving, and establishing trust, respect, and boundaries.

Individual and group animal therapy has been growing steadily in the Tri-State region. Maryland-based Pets on Wheels, Wags for Hope of Frederick, Brook Lane of Hagerstown, and Hagerstown’s STAR Community and Equestrian Center offer animal therapy services and programs designed to enhance the lives of area residents facing physical, emotional behavior and/or cognitive challenges. 

Beyond Warm Puppies 

Puppies aren’t the only animals providing therapeutic benefits. Pets on Wheels (POW) is a Maryland-based nonprofit with 500-plus volunteer pet owners, shares Executive Director Gina Kazimir. “There are no breed or species restrictions,” Gina explains. “In addition to dogs, we have guinea pigs, cats, tortoises, rabbits — even an alpaca. To participate, pets must pass certification and temperament requirements and undergo regular screenings. It’s heartwarming to see all types of pets positively impact people’s lives.”

Joan and Bob Fisher have been POW’s Western Maryland coordinators since 2017, overseeing 30 volunteers. “We were looking for something to do with our Shetland sheepdog, Mack, after Bob’s retirement. We still visit Lorien Nursing/Assisted Living friends weekly. Seeing the love and joy we bring people reflected in their smiles brings us great joy,” Joan explains.

Lynn Cherish and her 3-and-a-half-year-old alpaca, Everlast, have been POW volunteers for two years. “Everlast has a great personality that makes people light up and laugh when they see him,” shares Lynn, who tube-fed and raised Everlast after his premature birth. Lynn and Everlast visit Frederick’s Citizens Care and Rehabilitation Center and Daybreak Adult Day Care, Somerford’s Frederick facilities, and schools and libraries, including Thurmont Library’s Kids’ Fair.

John Rowan of Germantown and his 110-pound Newfoundland dog, Emma, are POW volunteers who visit the Washington County Free Library’s central branch regularly. “Kids love to read to Emma,” shares John. “Reading to animals is non-judgmental and gives them opportunity to improve literacy skills while having fun.”

Wags for Hope, a Frederick-based nonprofit, has 50 active volunteer teams of owners and pets serving Washington and Frederick counties, shares President Kelly Bongard, who volunteered with her Bernese mountain dog before becoming organization president in 2013. The group has two animal therapy training levels. “Level-one teams must attend two classes as well as pass an evaluation with the pet to demonstrate favorable reactions in varying public settings, including interaction with wheelchairs, walkers, loud noises and crowds,” explains Kelly. “Level-two teams require an additional handling test to work with facility partners Frederick Memorial Hospital and Frederick County’s Rock Creek School.”

In addition to nursing and assisted-living facility partnerships, Wags for Hope works with several local libraries and schools in conjunction with the R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assisting Dog) program. “We have several dogs participating. It builds kids’ confidence, and is a great avenue for developing literacy skills,” Kelly states. 

Enhancing Overall Health

Animal therapy is gaining popularity as an effective addition to treatments addressing mental, physical, and cognitive health challenges.

Chambersburg’s Bonnie and John McChesney and their dogs volunteer weekly with Brook Lane of Hagers-town’s adult intensive inpatient program, and adult partial hospital-ization program. Bonnie, a full-time dog trainer for 25-plus years, specializes in canine behavioral and animal therapy training and is the owner/operator of Bonnie McChesney Canine Consulting & Canine Therapy Assistance. The couple bring Posie, their 7-year-old goldendoodle rescue; Mia and Molly, Lagotto Romagnolos canine cousins; and standard poodle Calista to the campus. “It’s rewarding when we witness positive responses,” shares Bonnie. “The dogs love doing their work and enjoy spending time with people.”

Brook Lane’s programs feature group animal therapy that helps 25 people weekly, shares Activities Coordinator Sean Abbott. “It’s great to see patients and staff laughing and enjoying the dogs’ visits. We’ve witnessed that a lot of good can be done in a very short period of time with animal therapy. Animal therapy is an important part within the grand scheme of treating mental health issues,” relates Sean.

Two years ago, Brook Lane implemented the program featuring the McChesneys’ dogs, and it’s achieved great results since. “Our goal is to make things happen on a larger scale throughout the hospital, and incorporate animal therapy into our children’s and adolescent programs,” Sean explains.  

STAR Community and Equestrian Center offers several programs incorporating animal therapy, helping 80-plus people weekly, shares Rachel Kleinschmidt, a full-time therapeutic riding instructor and equine specialist.

Horses for Heroes is a one-on-one weekly program for active military and veterans. Program participants work with the same horse to learn horsemanship skills, participate in STAR-sponsored and other events, and work with mental health therapists and equine specialists. “This program focuses on each participant’s goals,” relates Rachel, the program’s director. “It’s exciting to see the bond develop and build between horses and participants. The horses bring things to light that may hide during interaction with others.” The Horses for Heroes partnerships include working with the Martinsburg VA Medical Center in West Virginia, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Way Station, Inc., and North Point Veteran’s Home.

Additionally, STAR offers therapeutic horseback riding and non-riding equine activities for adults facing physical, emotional behavior and/or cognitive challenges. Therapeutic riders participate in STAR events, Special Olympics, the Washington County Ag Expo Horse Show, and other events. Character Reins, for kids aged 8 to 18, is offered occasionally during summer and after-school hours. The program recently partnered with Cedar Ridge and Boys’ and Girls’ clubs. 

STAR’s day program has adult participants volunteering with barn and animal care chores. “Our therapeutic crew members elect to care for our horses, cows, pigs, goats, alpacas, donkeys, and bunnies,” explains Rachel. “We see great results with crew participants. They really enjoy caring for the animals.” 

Growing Success, Increasing Demand

Animal therapy has yielded great results within these organizations and programs. Joan notes an Alzheimer’s patient’s remarkable transformation when seeing her dog, Mack. Prior to Mack’s visits, Joan remembers the lady wouldn’t speak or express feelings. When she sees Mack, though, she laughs and speaks his name, her eyes lighting with happiness.

The Horses for Heroes program posits another success story. Rachel remembers a participant who was very shy, reserved, and not wanting to talk initially. He developed a great bond with his therapy horse, which helped cultivate his passion for learning more about horses. He now helps at STAR and cares for his therapy horse himself while on campus. He has participated in the Maryland State Fair horse show, is a volunteer advocate for STAR’s veteran program, and assists with STAR events and horse shows.

Another STAR success is a young, wheelchair-bound young woman who wanted to learn horseback riding. Rachel fondly remembers her determination to sit and ride without assistance — as well as the significant boost to her confidence when she succeeded.

Animal therapy’s positive impacts have led to increased requests from facility programs, area events, and individuals — so much so that organizations and volunteers can’t keep up with demand. “There are many programs and events we’d love to help,” shares Joan. “We have more requests than we can manage.”

Sean foresees animal therapy becoming a mainstream component of patient treatment plans. “The future may bring about doctors writing prescriptions for animal therapy. Animal therapy not only increases patients’ emotional and mental health, it increases their overall physical health.”