Therapy animals come in all shapes, sizes and types of service: miniature horses that provide love to patients in nursing homes and hospitals; dogs that listen patiently as children read to them; cats that purr and stretch when they are petted; and full-sized horses that help people with autism build confidence and learn to communicate.
Some provide companionship or a sense of calm for people with psychological or social challenges. Others are trained to assist health professionals with occupational or physical therapy patients.
“It can be a bit confusing when you’re talking about service animals and therapy animals,” says Mandy Pleshaw with Pet Partners.
Nationally, the organization has more than 14,000 volunteer teams. The therapy animals—mostly dogs—have had basic obedience training and thrive on interacting with people in various settings.
For several decades, equine therapy has been used with autistic children. The therapy now is used with Alzheimer’s patients, people with physiological impairments and those who are wheelchair bound.
“Horseback riding is excellent for wheelchair-bound patients because a horse’s gait is so similar to the human gait,” says Justine Morgan, manager of donor relations with Equine Assisted Therapies of South Florida. “The emotional bond between horses and people is so strong.
“I’ve seen children with special needs who don’t speak use verbal skills with the horse when they’re riding. It really boosts their self-confidence and self-esteem.”
Brenda Jewel grew up on a farm in Lake Asbury, where she first developed her love of dogs and horses.
“As a teen, I volunteered at a local barn where children with special needs came for hippotherapy (horseback riding), and I saw how it helped them—not only for the physical benefits, but also for the companionship,” says Brenda, an activity director at one of north Florida’s retirement communities.
Her insight into how people can improve their lives by interacting with animals had such an impact on her that she studied therapeutic recreation, earning a master’s degree from Florida State.
“I knew the incredible emotional power animals have with humans and wanted to use that to help people,” she says.
Brenda partnered with her first therapy animal in 1990, adopting and training Jodie—a 4-year-old black lab who was a guide-dog training wash-out.
“She visited psychiatric hospital patients with me,” Brenda says. “She had such a calming effect. The patients and the staff came to love her.”
Brenda’s latest, Archer, is an Australian shepherd/cattle dog cross adopted from a rescue group in southwest Florida. He is not a typical therapy animal candidate.
“Herding dogs generally have a very active temperament, but Archer is so laid back,” she says. “I call him my Jimmy Buffett dog because he’s perfectly happy just chilling out. He loves to be a lap dog.”
Archer visits patients at the retirement home where Brenda works.
“Archer has a motivating way with them,” she says. “A patient may not want to do physical therapy for a staff member, but she’ll take Archer for a short walk down the hall without complaining. He helps them exercise their arms by letting them brush him. They’ll do just about anything for Archer.”
Therapy animals also can be invaluable to help manage challenges from post-traumatic stress disorder and other invisible disabilities that can cripple someone psychologically with no outward signs, says author and researcher Melissa Fay Greene.
“I’ve heard of people whose lives have been dramatically changed by their bond with dogs,” Melissa says. “Whether they’re affected by a physical disability, an intellectual or psychological challenge, people’s bonds with therapy animals and the affects these relationships have are very real.”