May is Mental Health Month: Spotlight on Animal Therapy

Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 9:45am

Guest blog by Mary Dell Harrington, co-founder of the parenting blog Grown and Flown.

Moose is my seven-year old chocolate Labrador and we are partners. While I hold one end of the leash, he goes to work: he leans in, patiently, delighting in the ear scratches and hugs that follow. It is not uncommon to watch him dissolve onto the floor for full-out belly rubs. We are a pet therapy team and this is how he comforts our clients, psychiatric patients at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York.

Before we began working there as volunteers, we were trained and certified by Pet Partners, a non-profit organization that has long promoted the health benefits of the “human-animal bond.” (You can learn more about Pet Partners on the ASPCA website. Our first class was a refresher obedience course and helped me gain better control over my then, still puppy-like, two-year-old dog. The second taught me about the professional protocol expected of a therapy team.

Every Monday we visit men and women whose health challenges include schizophrenia, depression, addiction and other mental illnesses. Those who call his name are delighted when he trots over, greeting them with a friendly, tail-wagging response. The broad smiles on every face in the community room reveal a general sense of contentment as I take a moment and stop to let each person stroke Moose’s back and velvet-like ears.

Enthusiastic greetings and smiles are outward signs that Moose’s visits are a source of happiness, if only momentarily. What is not visible but, perhaps, even more compelling are the deeper benefits that can come from animal therapy.

In an article published by CNN Health Hal Herzog, professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, says evidence suggests that for some people, interacting with pets produces biochemical changes in the brain. Psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman notes in the article that caring for a pet helps people become less frightened, more self-sufficient and secure.

To see additional photos of Moose and to learn more about our animal therapy visits please check out a recent post about pet therapy on my blog, Grown and Flown.

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Mary Dell Harrington

Annaliza, thanks for your kind words and I wish you great success in your efforts toward working with animals and children. My advice to you is to try to ask your local vet for any information about organizations that train and certify people to do animal therapy. Are there any large hospitals near you? If so, try to see if there is someone whose responsibilities are to manage volunteers and see if they have any animal/adult teams that work as volunteers. Hope this helps.

Philip B

I read the CNN article and would be so interested in finding out what the biochemical changes were that affected patients with psychiatric illnesses as well as PTSD. Wouldn't it be great to put it in a bottle