When meeting met Sara, a 14-year-old golden retriever, she may seem like every other happy-go-lucky pup taking a leisurely sniff through Carnahan Memorial Garden.
But then, you’ll see her do something out of the ordinary. Like when she paused with excitement as she saw a young woman struggling to walk up the sidewalk carrying two heavy bags from the train station. As the woman locked eyes with Sara, who was waiting for her at the top of the hill, she seemed to forget how heavy her bags were, how steep the hills was or that the nearly 90 degree weather made her task all that more difficult. When the woman finally reached Sara, she couldn’t help but smile, stroke Sara’s head, and tell her what a good dog she was before continuing on.
“That’s how Sara works,” said Laurel Kramer, Sara’s owner. “She just made that woman’s day.”
Although Sara is recently retired, she spent the past several years working as a therapy animal alongside Kramer in her psychology clinic.
“Animals really bring another layer of unconditional love,” Kramer explained.
Animal-Assisted Therapy is the use of animal interactions with patients to aid recovery from health problems or cope with certain conditions. In 1961, Dr. Boris Levinson presented Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) to the American Psychological Association.
Since then, there have been many medical providers and therapists who support that practice, pointing to how therapy animals can decrease feelings of isolation, encourage communication, provide comfort, lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety and help motivate recovery.
To become a therapy animal, both the animal and handler must receive certification after completing a behavioral test.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘I want to take your therapy dog class’, but for Therapy Dog International you don’t have to take a class. You just have to pass the test so a class is highly recommended,” said Jennifer Winkelman, an instructor at MidMo Dog Training who has been a member of Therapy Dog International for 11 years. “To pass the test it’s a lot like the canine good citizen test,” she added.
Therapy animals can be a variety of species including dogs and cats and smaller animals like rabbits, reptiles and birds, but not all species may be granted access at certain establishments. You can often have them in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, court rooms, psychiatric offices or at an organization that uses animals for a specific treatment plan. However, you don’t always have to be a patient to visit with a therapy animal.
At least once a month, volunteers with Therapy Dogs International will bring therapy dogs to the Missouri River Regional Library for their Tail Waggin’ Tutors event where children and adults are invited to read out loud to a new furry friend. There are no requirements to attend the event and the dogs provide a calming environment that can help people with reading and public speaking. (Check mrrl.org for more information.)
But therapy animals can also work alongside specialists who provide patient therapy needs, such as at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center. At Cedar Creek, horses are used during therapy sessions that have been recommended by a doctor, and handlers will assist patients and the horse throughout the therapy plan.
It is also important to know that therapy animals do not provide the same services and are not granted the same access as service animals and emotional support animals.
Because therapy animals do not provide daily assistance, handlers must seek permission before entering a facility. Service animals on the other hand are defined as any dog that is individually trained to perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or post traumatic stress disorder under Title II and Title III of the American Disabilities Act.
Tasks performed by service animals may include pulling a wheelchair, retrieving dropped items, alerting a person to a sound or oncoming medical condition, reminding a person to take medication, pressing an elevator button and other tasks that improve their owner’s quality of life.
“I broke my back nine years ago and I was stuck with a cane, and I hate the cane, so then she became available and she just makes my life so much more fun,” said Lina Eddy, who got her service dog, Sandy, an Anatolian shepherd, nearly two years ago.
Sandy encourages Eddy to to be more active and socializing more within her church and in public, but Sandy also has a specific tasks to help Eddy when she is prone to falling.
“When she goes out with me everyone loves her because she’s so beautiful, but when she’s with me she knows exactly what she’s supposed to be doing,” Eddy said.
Because of Sandy’s large size and trained responses she is able keep Eddy balanced.
By law, service animals may enter any establishment or airline and are protected under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act.
These acts also pertain to animals who are registered as emotional support animals.
An emotional support animal (ESA) is a person’s pet that has been prescribed by a person’s licensed therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. These pets are often used as part of a medical treatment for their owners, but are not considered service animals under the ADA. These animals can support companionship, relieve loneliness and sometimes help with depression, anxiety and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.
However, landlords may not deny or charge an extra pet deposit for a tenant who requires an assistance animal under the Fair Housing Act and may travel with their owner in an aircraft under the Air Carrier Act.
It should be noted that landlords and airlines may require documentation from a licensed mental health professional before owners can receive these accommodations. Owners may also be charged for any damages their animal causes and they cannot bring their animal into any public building with a no pet policy, as emotional support animals are not covered by the ADA.
For anyone seeking therapy with an animal, it is important to consult with your doctor and/or psychiatrist to determine your specific needs.
If you are someone who may be more interested in working with pets, volunteering your time offers many benefits to you, your pets and the community.
“There’s a lot of places that want therapy dogs and I feel there’s a shortage, so it would be great to have more,” Jennifer Winkelman said.
For more information about volunteering a therapy dog you can visit midmodogs.com/therapydogs.htm.