Add “make people feel better” to the list of tricks dogs can be taught.
In dog therapy, patients interact with a trained canine in hour-long sessions, an engagement that reduces stress, helps with redirection and grounding, and generally boosts spirits. This is particularly effective for hospital patients, the elderly, and, especially, with autistic children and adults.
“It helps decrease anxiety and stabilize the patient,” says Brooklyn resident Rachel McPherson, founder and executive director of the Good Dog Foundation, which has provided therapy dog services for more than a decade.
Good Dog organizes all-volunteer, human-canine teams to help people experience the healing power of working with animals. With nearly 1,000 teams operating in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, Good Dog is the largest organization of its kind on the East Coast. Locally, the foundation is active at the Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg and Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie.
“In the Hudson Valley area, I visit a day program for adult men with autism,” says Liz Marino, who volunteers with her two dogs. “The men I work with are nonverbal, have very short attention spans, and prefer to be in their own world rather than interact with people.” The men communicate — through an iPad-style computer — whether they’d like to walk, pet, or brush the dog. The interaction with the canine has salient results. “When I first started there, a gentleman might want to be in the room with me and the dog for only one to two minutes. Now they are asking for 10 to 20 minutes. That is amazing to me. They’re initiating the requests, beginning to look me in the eye and shake my hand, and seem to look forward to the touch of my dog.”
The foundation got its start in a roundabout way. When McPherson was an undergraduate, she and her dog spent a semester working with a physically compromised child. The animal therapy paid off; after a few months with McPherson and her canine colleague, the child began to speak. “That piqued my interest in the field,” she recalls.
Years later, while developing a follow-up to her 1984 Academy Award-nominated documentary Signals Through the Flames, she remembered her experience with animal therapy and intended to make a movie about it. “I never made the film,” she says. “I started the foundation instead.”
When Good Dog was formed, it was illegal in New York State to bring therapy dogs to hospitals. McPherson teamed with St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City on a pilot program, in the process changing the laws to allow for animal therapy. She’s spent the past decade growing the organization, which won awards from the ASPCA and the Red Cross for its work with the families of victims, rescue workers, and others after the September 11 disaster. Good Dog was also deployed in McPherson’s native Mississippi to assist families in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Each team consists of one volunteer and his or her dog. The dogs have been prescreened to make sure they have the right temperament, but any number of dogs would make good dog therapists. While there are about 100 volunteer teams active in the Valley area, Good Dog is looking for more help. “We’re in need of volunteers all the time,” McPherson says. “We need people to help us as much as possible.” The canine volunteers have to be at least four months old, but the human ones need not be adults.
The benefits of the therapy are obvious for patients and volunteers alike. “I see people who are withdrawn into a world of silence begin to come out of that world,” Marino says. “I had no idea how much a dog could touch someone and bring them out in a safe way. I’m grateful to share in this experience.”