Hooray for Four-Legged Therapists

There is an unmistakable connection between people and animals. It’s obvious when you’ve had a bad day, and your dog immediately comes to your side, gazing at you with loving eyes, or your cat senses some “lap time” is in order. Studies even show this bond is real, as my fellow blogger on Pet Health Central, David Greene, pointed out.

But that connection seems even stronger with therapy animals.

On June 21, the Sacramento Bee reported a longtime staff member at Sutter Memorial Hospital retired: a therapy dog named Hazel. Hazel, reports Cynthia Hubert, worked for nine years to bring peace and comfort and joy to patients in Sutter’s children’s hospital.

Therapy animals come in all shapes and sizes these days … canine, feline, porcine (yes, potbelly pigs!) and equine. And while Pet Health Central is focused on dogs and cats (including some great canine therapy dogs here on the blog – like blogger Jill Bertsch’s dog Bo, or Moses the therapy dog), I thought all of you pet lovers would appreciate this story about a dear friend our family recently lost…a remarkable American Quarter Horse who touched the lives of hundreds who knew him. “Macs Rockin’ Rio,” – or “Rocky” was 31 when he succumbed to old age.

Rocky came into our lives when my daughter was 5. She spent countless hours learning to groom and ride the patient gelding.

Rocky was known as a “bomb-proof” horse. Once, at a horse show, my daughter fell off while opening a huge stock gate.  She landed in a heap at his feet, and Rocky’s massive hooves never moved.  His only response was to drop his muzzle to the top of her head as if to ask, “What are you doing down there, little one?”

Objects that can cause ordinary horses to spook– blowing leaves, barking dogs, plastic bags, darting children, loud noises – were of no concern to Rocky.

He seemed to have an innate sense of the ability of his rider. As my daughter became more skilled, Rocky tested her limits.  When I climbed aboard, Rocky knew the difference and responded accordingly. As my daughter grew older, she moved on to more challenging mounts.

But Rocky’s life as a teacher was far from over. He became a therapy horse. His new riders faced a multitude of challenges – Down syndrome, stroke, deafness – yet each rider found themselves with a calm, nonjudgmental friend who carefully carried them around the arena.  Time and  again, I watched as developmentally-disabled teens and adults experienced success. Some days, that meant earning a ribbon at a horse show. Other days, it simply meant a smooth ride around the arena.

Rocky spread his charm far and wide, becoming an equine ambassador with visits to an elementary school, where all the children in his owner’s class – and the teacher – got the chance to sit upon his broad, safe back. He was, reported owner Pam Rasmussen, THE horse to go to when a gentle mount was needed.

What is it about therapy animals that makes them so very special? For large animals, like horses, it’s a combination of power and beauty.

Sue Miller-Harsin, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and the owner of Unbridled Acres (which specializes in equine therapy) notes there is “something empowering about relating and attaching yourself to a horse.”

Equine therapy may involve working on the ground, next to a 1,000-pound animal. Working with horses is “metaphorical for our lives,” explains Miller-Harsin. “We all have anxieties, fears, doubts, boundary or assertive issues…at different times, we battle different problems for different reasons.”

“Every day we are faced with obstacles and challenges, and we have to learn how to handle them,” she adds. “Inside ourselves, we have the power to do more than we ever imagined.”

Therapy animals are – regardless of size or species –  friendly, tolerant, and forgiving. Where people may shun those with developmental issues, avoid those who are ill or dying, mock those with disabilities, or ignore those who are lonely or abused, therapy animals provide loving attention and companionship.

Animals like Rocky or Hazel, the therapy dog from a Sacramento hospital, can fill a niche in the lives of people who most need love and support. Organizations like Therapy Dogs International offer programs ranging from dogs who visit hospitals, nursing homes and homeless shelters (like Pet Health Central’s Bo!), to those who “listen” to young readers at schools and libraries (like Pet Health Central’s Moses the Dog!), and even those who bring comfort to the dying or to grieving families at funeral homes. In the bleakest hours, therapy animals provide not only emotional support but can actually provide physical and psychological benefits.

“Studies have shown that a person holding or petting an animal will cause a lowering of blood pressure, the release of strain and tension, and can draw out a person from loneliness and depression,” notes Therapy Dogs International.

The Sacramento Bee piece reports that Hazel made a difference “every single day” her owner worked with her.

Large or small, therapy animals provide comfort in ways we may never be able to measure. I could be wrong, but I don’t know any laboratory instrument that can measure joy, comfort, accomplishment, acceptance, peace or happiness, all gifts given freely by therapy animals.

Over three decades, Rocky’s gentle demeanor made an impact on lives.

“Rocky was my best friend in the whole world. During a time when I was alone and friendless…he was there,” recalled one young rider. “He never hurt anyone, never ever kicked, never bit and never bucked. He lived to such a proud age and touched so many people’s lives… He will be sorely missed.”

Has an animal been there for you in your hour of need? Share with us in the comments below.


Photo Credit: from flickr by Megill. Inset photo by Melissa Rice.

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