Using dogs for therapy

How animal-assisted therapy benefits people

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By Dave Reese/Montana Health Journal

Maggie is not your ordinary therapist.

But at just over two feet tall with blonde hair and a long, wagging tail, Maggie is quite popular with the residents of Immanuel Lutheran Home in Kalispell.

Maggie, a yellow labrador, is a certified therapy dog used for a variety of therapy settings at the retirement home.


Working with occupational therapist Cara Sargent, Maggie helps people in a variety of settings, from speech therapy to cognitive and physical therapy.

The Immanuel Lutheran Community’s Rehab to Home program helps people after hospitalization from an injury, illness or accident.  The rehab to home program helps people gain strength and ability to return home. 

Sargent and the staff at Immanuel Lutheran Communities evaluate which residents might benefit from working with a therapy dog. But the biggest requirement of working with Maggie, or her litter mate Zoey, is that the residents must love dogs. Then, Sargent sets up the patient’s goals for animal assisted therapy.

From brushing the dog, to throwing balls for it, the client gets many benefits of animal assisted therapy. In speech therapy they can use the dog in ways such as identifying parts of the dog or giving simple commands. Residents who work with the therapy dogs often benefit from improved range of motion, strength, and balance, Sargent said. “And it’s very uplifting for them psychologically,” she said.

“The dog is another modality of therapy. Instead of using weights, a bicycle or a treadmill, you use a dog,” she said. “We’ve had residents, maybe they’ve had a stroke, and it’s hard to get them to initiate tasks. We can take the dog in and they’re smiling, reaching out to them.


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Dog handler Cara Sargent with Maggie at the Immanuel Lutheran Home  in Kalispell. David Reese photo/Montana Living

It can be very satisfying for them.

“We had one resident who was severely impaired and we couldn’t get her to open up and participate. We brought Maggie in, and the woman had a huge smile on her face and was reaching out to Maggie.”

“We couldn’t get her to do anything, but Maggie did,” Sargent said.

Sargent has been working at the Immanuel Lutheran Communities over eight years, and so have her dogs, ever since they were puppies. “Our dogs love coming in too, because they get lots of attention,” she said.

Sargent and her two dogs are trained in animal assisted therapy, and now enjoys her two passions — people and animals. “I love my dogs, so it was very exciting for me to be able to combine my dogs with my profession,” Sargent said. “I get to be with my dogs and help people.”


North Valley Hospital

Kristin Nygren knows from experience how much a dog can help soothe and calm a person with an illness.

While going through cancer treatments four years ago, it was her dog that helped give her perspective and comfort. “I love them so much and when I was going through chemo, my dog really helped me,” she said. “After a bad chemo session everything really kind of clicked with my dog. It really really helped.”

Now Nygren and Ajax, her Pembroke Welsh Corgi, visit with patients at North Valley Hospital as a way of helping others. “It’s total satisfaction. He likes it, and to help somebody is what it’s about,” Nygren said.

Ajax and Nygren are certified by Therapy Dogs Inc. They visited hospitals and assisted-living facilities for three days during their training. “He’s the kind of dog that is people oriented,” Nygren said. “He seems to know when people are not feeling well and he likes to be there for comfort.”

Nygren did not have a program like this when she was going through cancer treatment, but had dogs at home, “which helped a lot,” she said. “That just triggered the idea to go ahead and do it.”

The duo now has been visiting people with illnesses for three years. “It’s been amazing,” Nygren said. “Some people notice a difference in their blood pressure. One person, who had not spoken for three days, started talking to him.”

It seems Nygren benefits from sharing her dog with others, too. “I get tremendous satisfaction out of it,” she said. “As a cancer survivor it’s a way of giving back. When someone lights up, it just makes me feel so good. It’s a fulfillment, a wonderful satisfaction.”


Heidi Ganahl, founder of Camp Bow Wow, knows how pets enhance mental health. Ganahl has the following ideas and tips for having your own “pet therapist.”

 General Benefits

There’s a reason that they say dog is man’s best friend. Having a pet is something that everyone should experience at some point in their life. Pets can be calming, mood lifting, empathetic and so much more, Ganahl says. They teach you how to be selfless and responsible as you are caring over another life.

Stress Reduction

Some studies show that people begin to feel less anxious after spending less than an hour with an animal. There are endless benefits from lowering your stress level and while the things that we find stressful in our lives are often hard to cut out, including an animal in your life can help, according to Ganahl.

Helps with Depression

In some cases, therapists suggest patients suffering from depression that they purchase a pet. An animal will love you unconditionally and also be a great friend and listener. Ganahl says people with depression often benefit from having a pet, as the animal can help them get out of the house and “out of their own head.”

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Miami University and Saint Louis University set out to see how someone can rely on their animals to feel socially connected and in control of one’s life. Among the elderly or the very ill, caring for a pet can help stave off loneliness and even improve physical health, the research found.

Allen McConnell at Miami University conducted three studies that were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The researchers discovered that pet owners were generally less lonely, had higher self-esteem and exercised more (although of course it isn't clear whether pets bring out those positive traits in their owners, or whether people with those traits are the ones who seek out pets in the first place).

In another study the researchers took a closer look at dog owners in particular. They found that dogs did help their owners to meet social needs, and that those owners then felt better about life as a result. The research showed that having pets helped, regardless of how much support the owners were already getting from others.


Tips for Choosing the Best Pet for Your Family


Age-Old Wisdom: Be sure your new pet correlates with the ages of those in the household. A good rule of thumb: the new pet should fit the current physical capabilities of the caretakers with a perspective for what the next 10-15 years will bring.

It is not advised to bring a pet five months or younger, or toy-sized, into a home with young children. As young pets like to teethe and play, a young child may risk being bitten by a playful pet or may accidentally injure a toy-sized pet. A better choice for a household with young children is a medium-to-large sized pet over five months of age.

If there are elderly members in a household, a strong vigorous adolescent pet is not advised. Large breeds also demand more physical upkeep, something that an older person may no longer be fit for.

Establish the Primary Caretaker: As most families are extremely busy, figuring out who will take care of the new family pet while the others are working, at school or away is a key point to consider. The best decision to make before buying a new pet is to designate a primary caretaker who will be responsible for it when the fray of life picks up.

A Gift for the Whole Family: Although it is exciting to surprise the family with a new pet for the holidays, the best approach is to bring the family to meet the candidate and gauge how they all interact. Do some research and poll each family member to find out what they are looking for in a new pet so that the pet you choose aligns with the circumstances of the household.


The Price of a New Pet

A new pet can range from “free-to-a-good-home” to several thousand dollars. A budget must be set not only for the upfront cost of taking the pet home, but also for immediate follow-up costs like veterinary check-ups, a training crate and pet obedience classes. Also keep in mind that your pet will need to be fed and groomed and will also need chew toys and additional supplies like food bowls, a dog bed, brushes, leashes, etc. Also keep in mind the necessary chunk of money needed for veterinary emergencies.

 A new pet will cost the family by ways of time and energy. Various breeds and ages will make different demands, requiring more time in training and daily exercise than others. Any pet will require exercise, training and supervision and any age pet will require commitment from the family to establish house rules and routines.
















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