Providing Comfort and Companionship
July 25th, 2016 by Pamela A. Keene
Therapy dog Simon relaxes while his handler, George Sallee, delights a young listener with a story. Simon and George love reading to children. Photo by Greg Silsby/PhotoPoetica

Therapy dog Simon relaxes while his handler, George Sallee, delights a young listener with a story. Simon and George love reading to children.
Photo by Greg Silsby/PhotoPoetica

Therapy animals come in all shapes, sizes and types of service: miniature horses that provide love to patients in nursing homes and hospitals; dogs that listen patiently as children read to them; cats that purr and stretch when petted; and full-sized horses that help people build confidence and communication skills.

Some provide companionship or a sense of calm for people with psychological or social challenges. Others are trained to assist health professionals with occupational or physical therapy patients.

Washington-based Pet Partners has more than 14,000 teams of volunteers nationwide. After the therapy animals—mostly dogs—receive basic obedience training, they visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes and community groups.

George Sallee, 80, and his golden retriever, Simon, have made more than 330 therapy visits in the past two years.

“Kids who would never read out loud quickly volunteer to read to Simon when we’re at schools or libraries,” says the Washington man. “And he brings great joy to people in retirement homes who just like to pet him or scratch behind his ears.”

The two recently befriended a 9-year-old whose mother died six months earlier.

“I got Simon to take Jadon on as his handler, and you wouldn’t believe what a difference it’s made to this youngster,” says George. “He lights up every time he and Simon are together.”

Pet Partners offers training for people who want to become part of an animal therapy team with numerous species, including rabbits, birds, miniature pigs and horses, llamas and domesticated rats.

“Service animals have a lot of responsibility, and you certainly don’t pet a service dog because he’s working,” George says. “Therapy dogs can be a lot more laid back because they cheer people up. You’d better be ready to pet a therapy dog. They just love the attention and affection.”

Therapy with horses is used with autistic children to build their confidence, calm them and improve their physical condition. It also is used with Alzheimer’s patients, people with physiological impairments and those wheelchair bound.

“Equine therapy has been incredibly successful in a variety of situations,” says Nicole Budden, executive director of Oregon’s Happy Trails Riding Center. “A horse’s gait simulates walking for the rider and can be very empowering. When they get on a horse, all their disabilities seem to go away.”

Emmy Harrop, 18, has been riding there since she was a first-grader.

“She had a passion for horses from an early age, so we started with therapeutic riding,” says her mother, Linda. “She’s on the autism spectrum with social and behavioral needs. When she’s riding, she’s confident and very relaxed. It’s a place for her to fit in and to fulfill her dream of being around horses. When she’s riding, she’s totally happy.”

Therapy animals can be invaluable to help manage challenges from crippling psychological disabilities, says author and researcher Melissa Fay Greene.

“I’ve heard of people whose lives have been dramatically changed by their bond with dogs,” Melissa says. “Whether they’re affected by a physical disability, an intellectual or psychological challenge, people’s bonds with therapy animals and the effects these relationships have are very real.”