A therapy dog in a hospital with a young patient

They Make Life Better for the Humans They Serve

Some dogs undergo extensive training so they will be able to complete tasks that people can't handle themselves, while others help out simply by being dogs. There obviously is a distinct difference between service dogs and therapy dogs, but the end result is generally the same: They make life a little better and physical and mental medical issues a little less stressful for the humans they so loyally serve.

David Bradbury, chief of prosthetics and sensory aids at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Charleston, said the service dogs that help veterans fall into four categories: mobility dogs are paired with veterans who are confined to a wheelchair of suffering from a traumatic brain injury and need help with balance and walking; hearing service dogs help out by alerting their masters to fire alarms or traffic, when they are outside the person's home; seizure control service animals let their masters know when they may be about to suffer a seizure; and guide dogs help visually impaired people with the activities of daily living.

Bradbury said the service dogs in the first three categories are trained and certified by Assistance Dogs International, while the final group is certified by the International Guide Dog Foundation. Training usually takes around two years.

"The VA does not issue service dogs," he said. "We provide medical care for VA-approved service dogs. The dog is added to the patient's record, just like a knee brace or a wheelchair is issued to that veteran. They are provided a medical card for that service animal for veterinary care and products."

Once the dogs are assigned to veterans, they remain until they are eligible for retirement, a subjective decision that depends in large part on the dog's job. For example, Bradbury said, mobility dogs that pull veterans with a harness usually wear out quicker than those tasked with recognizing impending seizures. In general, he said, service dogs retire after eight to 12 years.

The VA currently doesn't deal with therapy dogs, though a four-year program launched in 2016 was established to determine if they would be useful to veterans.

Therapy dogs certainly are useful for Sherie Corbett, owner of Healing Roots Behavioral Health Center in Summerville. She explained that these dogs and their masters visit nursing homes or hospitals on a voluntary basis, while an emotional support dog is assigned to work with a person after a medical professional has decided that the relationship would be helpful. With animal assisted therapy, a mental health professional is trained on how to use the dog to help the patient. Corbett has a pair of Yorkies, Bentley and Zoey, in her office.

"The dog greets the patient and reacts to the patient," she explained. "They can pet the dog, which lowers heart rate and blood pressure. It's soothing, and it helps them to be calmer."

"A dog changes the energy in the room," said Corbett, who does a lot of work with first responders. "If a firefighter is talking about a wreck with fatalities, their blood pressure and heart rate might go up. Rubbing a dog can help keep their brain from going into overdrive."

Cathy Bennett started working in the Pet Therapy Program at the Medical University of South Carolina a few years ago. She is now coordinator of a program that can call on the talents of 41 dogs, each of them approved by one of four organizations: The Alliance of Therapy Dogs; Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs; Love on a Leash; or Pet Partners.

She agreed with Corbett concerning the value of therapy dogs.

"They can reduce blood pressure, improve self-esteem and provide comfort for patients and family members," she said. "The way they can eradicate the loneliness a patient feels is huge, especially for a person who has a pet at home and isn't accustomed to being separated from that pet."

Bennett said MUSC depends on two types of pet therapy. With animal assisted activity, a therapy team – the dog and its owner – visit patients in the hospital. Dogs that weigh less than 50 pounds are permitted on the bed, as long as there is a barrier between the bed and the dog. She added that everyone involved sanitizes their hands before and after the encounter between the dog and the patient.

Animal assisted therapy is a little more complicated because the dog actually helps treat the patient.

"At the children's rehab center, the dogs actually do therapeutic work with the patient. For example, a child might be working on motor skills in his arms. Rather than have a specialist work with the arms, time is spent throwing a ball to the dog," Bennett said.

Bennett has two therapy dogs of her own, goldendoodles Jaxson and Harley. Each volunteer dog in the program has his or her own trading card, which are distributed to patients and, according to Bennett, "worth their weight in gold."

"Dogs have a tendency to bring out the best in everybody," Bennett concluded. "It's difficult to see a dog with its tail wagging and not smile. Pets overall make people happy."

By Brian Sherman

INFOGRAPHIC: Service Dogs by the Numbers
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