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Toni Talks about PT Today

Animals and Therapy

Published January 13, 2010 2:48 PM by Toni Patt
There is an article in the latest edition of the electronic version of ADVANCE. It describes using dogs to help with therapy. One of the examples used was a child handing a toy to a dog. In doing so, the child worked on coactivation of trunk muscles, weight shifting and forward reaching. The dog got a toy. And the child got to play with the dog. What might have taken 30 minutes to accomplish in a clinic happened instantly because the child wanted to play with the dog.

The value of animals to physical therapy has been known a long time. Horses have been used for years as a therapeutic modality. The gait of a horse perfectly mimics the gait of a human. Anyone sitting on a horse experiences the sensation of normal gait without actually walking. There is significant evidence supporting the value of Hippotherapy with pediatric patients. I personally consider the time I spend with my horses therapy time.

Several years ago, I worked at a nursing home that permitted residents to have pets. On several occasions, I brought my German shepherd to work with me. He's a huge dog which makes him the perfect height to put his head at hand level of someone in a wheelchair.  He was also good at visiting people in bed because they could reach him.  The first time I took him there was some concern that he would scare the residents. No one was afraid of him. Everyone wanted to see the dog. I had some of my best therapy sessions when he was there.

There is an instinctive bond between humans and animals.  We automatically want to reach over and pet or interact with an animal. Every PT knows how much easier it is to get patients to do something they want to do.  Animals provide that something. Animals also provide unconditional love and acceptance. Animals don't judge by appearance or functional ability. My dog went up to all the patients.  He didn't care what was wrong with them.  Horses have the added advantage of enabling a child who is stuck in a wheelchair to have mobility. Controlling the horse gives the child a sense of power over his or her surroundings. That must be a wonderful feeling for some of them. 

I wish there was a way to incorporate animals into the facility where I work. It's hospital-based so the chances of that are slim to none. I can just imagine the face of an infection control nurse if I asked to bring my dog to work. Once a month we have "caring critters" come to visit. I'm not sure who pet them more, patients or staff. We all enjoy them. I hope things have improved by the time I get older. Animals are a big part of my life. I know I'll be asking for them when I'm in the hospital.  While the parrot might be welcome, the horse might be a challenge.

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