By Phil Snyder, Executive Director of Suncoast Humane Society
Published in the Englewood Sun on April 5, 2015
The pet therapy program is one of the truly "feel great" programs of the Suncoast Humane Society. The program exemplifies the human-animal bond for adults and children who need it the most.
Forty-two volunteer teams, composed of both two- and four-legged members, spend their time visiting hospitals, nursing homes, schools and even libraries. Their goal is to share their unconditional love these pet therapy dogs offer.
The benefits of pet therapy or pet-facilitated therapy, a more descriptive name, are widely known. It is, in fact, scientifically prove that this bonding can have a positive effect on a person's physical and mental health.
This interaction is known to lower blood pressure, provide automatic relaxation, lift spirits, lessen depression and anxiety, and even reduce boredom and loneliness.
Suncoast has offered a pet therapy program to the community for nearly 14 years. In 2005, the program was upgraded, and the commitment was made to require teams to be evaluated and certified through the Delta Society, a national organization now known as Pet Partners. Handlers and animals must pass a skills and aptitude evaluation to determine if they are suited for therapy work. Re-evaluations are repeated every two years.
One of the society's most popular pet therapy programs is "Doggie Tales," where children of all reading abilities are allowed to relax beside a therapy dog and read aloud. This allows them to focus, improve their literary skills and increase their self-confidence. Much of the success of "Doggie Tales" is attributed to its nonjudgmental environment.
Pet therapy programs greatly benefit both the recipient and team members. Spreading warmth and joy, and helping to overcome loneliness and fear, are very rewarding experiences. Imagine the joy of knowing you have left someone smiling, perhaps feeling a little less tired and a bit more optimistic. You just know they already are waiting for that next pet therapy visit.
There are so many rewards, and even sometimes an award. Recently, therapy team member Dee, and her canine team member, Cappy, were honored with a Bravo Above and Beyond award by Doctors Hospital of Sarasota, for an exceptional experience the team shared with a patient. The patient was so touched by the pet therapy visit that she wrote a wonderful poem about the experience. That story and poem can be found on Suncoast Humane's Society's blog, blog.humane.org.
My unforgettable personal experience occurred years ago, while I was taking part in a pet therapy visit to a nursing home. After watching some of the therapy dogs perform, one of the patients motioned for me to bend down so she could tell me something. She whispered, "That dog over there looks just like mine when I was a little girl." As I was responding to her, a nurse hurried to me, crying out, "Oh my God, she spoke to you." As it turned out, she had not spoken a word to anyone since becoming a patient several months prior.