Pet Therapy in Maryland

tail waggin tutors(2) onlinePets brighten our lives in many ways and are loving members of our families. But they can also play an important therapeutic role, helping children (and adults) who face various challenges in life.


What is pet therapy?

Pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, uses trained animals and their handlers to improve a person's physical, emotional, cognitive, or social functioning. The animals, which must meet strict standards and be certified, typically visit patients in hospitals, residents in nursing homes, inmates in prisons, and children in schools and libraries. Dogs are the most common therapy animals—you might see them at hospitals being escorted from room to room by their handlers. But cats, rabbits, and birds also serve as therapy animals. And don't underestimate the healing power of horses.

"Every interaction with pets is beneficial to people," says Susan Longo, a veterinarian at Bay Ridge Animal Hospital, Annapolis. "Pets love unconditionally, and they don't expect anything in return. Hugging a dog or petting a purring cat provides a great sense of comfort. Children really respond to animals and form a close bond with them. This relationship can help them deal with physical or emotional issues. Pet therapy is truly amazing. It can open so many doors and has the power to change lives."


Horses that heal

IMG 6484Horses often captivate children with their spirit and grace. But for some children, horses can also be a godsend. Children with physical disabilities, including autism, Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida (among others), as well as emotional and learning disabilities have been found to benefit from therapeutic riding. Riding can empower such children with a sense of accomplishment and independence.

The program at Maryland Therapeutic Riding (MTR) in Crownsville teaches riding skills to participants with physical, cognitive and/or emotional disabilities. MTR serves nearly 200 riders a year; the youngest participant is two years old. Horses are used as instructional tools to help riders achieve their goals. PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International certified instructors conduct all classes.

"To a child (or adult) with a physical, developmental, or emotional disability, life can look a lot brighter on horseback," says Kelly Rodgers, MTR's program director. "The power and warmth of the horse strengthens and tones muscles; improves balance, head control, and coordination; builds self-esteem; and offers a sense of freedom and equality. The benefits of therapeutic riding are often carried over into everyday life, directly improving participants' quality of life."

Parents report significant differences in their children, too. One mother told Rodgers that it gives her autistic son something "special and cool to participate in." Parents also report seeing their children open up more socially and engaging with other children.

Opportunities for social interaction are indeed an additional benefit of therapeutic riding. Riders develop meaningful relationships with the staff and volunteers. They also bond with a horse that makes them feel secure.

"There is something magical about horses," Rodgers says. "Through the healing power of horses, I have witnessed non-verbal children speak their first words, [have seen] children that wouldn't interact socially with anyone make friends, and have even seen a child take their first steps after riding."


Tail Waggin' Tutors

Pet therapy also helps children in ways you may have never considered. It may sound strange, but therapy dogs are actually very good "tutors."

Tail Waggin' Tutors, a program created by Therapy Dogs International (TDI), helps children improve their reading skills by reading aloud to therapy dogs. Many children have difficulty learning to read and are self-conscious when reading aloud in the classroom. They may also feel embarrassed if their teacher corrects them in front of their peers. Reading to a therapy dog is meant to be a positive experience that boosts a child's confidence and self-esteem.

The program has been a great success at the Anne Arundel County Public Library. Katie Bacon, a member of TDI, organizes the program; Bacon's two therapy dogs, Max and Daisy, are the "tutors." Each child who participates in the program meets with Max and Daisy individually. "What's so great about Tail Waggin' Tutors is that it allows kids who don't particularly like reading to make a positive association with reading, by getting to spend time with two very gentle, loving dogs," Bacon says.

She recalls two particularly memorable sessions. One involved a child whose parent had recently left. This child hadn't spoken much since the parent had left the home, but was able read to the dog. The second session involved a student who had never read more than one paragraph to the reading teacher in one sitting. This child sat down with Daisy and read a whole chapter, Bacon says. "I feel lucky to be able to share such wonderful dogs with my Annapolis community and meet new people in the process."

"Tail Waggin' Tutors is a great program," adds Shirley Lord, library associate at the Eastport-Annapolis Neck Branch Library. "Parents have told me that their children get really excited about the program. They look forward to it and talk about it for weeks. It's so fun to see the kids interact with the dogs, and it's great to see struggling readers become more confident."

Animals enrich children's lives in many ways. They love unconditionally, ease loneliness, and don't judge. The simple act of petting an animal brings a great sense of comfort. If your child has a disability or faces a challenge that seems insurmountable, pet therapy may be the solution.


Resources

Maryland Therapeutic Riding

410-923-1187, mtrinfo@mtrinc.org, horsesthatheal.org

Therapy Dogs International (TDI)

Therapy Dogs International is a volunteer group organized to provide qualified handlers and their therapy dogs for visitations to institutions, facilities, and any other place where therapy dogs are needed.

To learn more about Tail Waggin' Tutors, TDI's reading program, visit tdi-dog.org.


Pet therapy in action

 

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Katie Bacon of Tail Waggin' Tutors with her two therapy dogs, Max (left) and Daisy (right).

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Daisy (left) and Max (right) of Tail Waggin' Tutors help out at a library reading program.