Therapeutic Benefits of Animals: Residents “Thrive” with the Presence of Therapy Dogs

by Michaela Gardner

Living the remaining part of your life in an assisted living facility sometimes means life loses its variety, and routines become the norm. Luckily, there are people that devote their lives to enriching the days of those in assisted living homes, hospitals, nursing homes and other such facilities. One of these devoted people is April Few, the Director of Excitement at Thrive Assisted Living and Memory Care in Watkinsville, GA. While some might say that the residents at Thrive are lucky to have April, she considers herself the lucky one. She works every day to provide residents with “meaningful and purposeful activities that are tailored to their individual interests and abilities.” One of these meaningful activities is regular visits from therapy dog teams. 

Therapy dog teams consist of a dog and its handler. Not just any dog can become a certified therapy dog—testing and evaluation is thorough, and just because an animal is properly trained doesn’t guarantee that it has the proper temperament to succeed. In addition to basic obedience, dogs seeking certification are tested on their ability to tolerate the use and presence of medical equipment, loud noises and other such distractions. They must be socially and physically affectionate, and being able to perform tricks always makes a pet that much more appealing to institutions seeking the services of therapy dog teams. Handlers must also be outgoing, sociable and empathetic. These qualities can make or break an aspiring therapy dog team. 

Aside from the obvious outward benefits of animal therapy, such as laughter and smiles, science has proven that there are internal medical benefits, as well. Animal therapy has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve overall cardiovascular health, reduce pain and stimulate the release of endorphins, thus increasing happiness and pleasure. 

Those suffering from mental illness can also benefit from animal therapy. Children with autism often find it difficult, and at times near impossible, to interact with other people but are comforted by the presence of animals. Sometimes therapy animals are the only other living beings these children are able to engage with. The presence of therapy animals also decreases loneliness, anxiety and depression, encourages communication, and provides general encouragement for people recovering from mental and physical ailments.

Thrive currently has two therapy dog teams that visit on a regular basis, Aussie and Maizie. In April Few’s opinion, “the look of joy on our residents’ faces is the biggest benefit” to having them visit. She describes the dogs as “sweet, gentle and calming,” and their presence offers “a sense of peace and nostalgia” to residents in assisted living and memory care. When asked about some of the favorite activities that residents get to participate in with the dogs, April keeps it simple: “They all enjoy watching the dogs perform tricks, snuggles and [petting] them.”

 April recalls one of her favorite moments involving Maizie; she says that as soon as one of the residents saw Maizie, her face absolutely lit up. “She told us a story about this puppy that she had when she was younger and how her dog was just the sweetest, most gentle friend. She said she loved that dog with all her heart and that Maizie’s face reminded her of her sweet friend.” Aussie gets plenty of love from the residents, as well, and is a regular at Thrive. “He particularly enjoys visiting with one of our ladies because she always keeps a special treat waiting for him,” April explains. She anticipates his regular visits and assures him every time that “Granny is so glad to see you!”

On Monday, October 30, Thrive hosted their “Howl-aween Paw Party,” which involved six therapy dog teams. Of course, Aussie and Maizie were in attendance. The dogs arrived in costume and had the opportunity to Trick-or-Treat with the residents. Each dog received an individually-prepared treat bag, performed special tricks and spent time socializing with all of the residents. April was beyond excited preparing for the event. It’s activities like these that make her job all the more rewarding. As the Director of Excitement, what better way to provide said excitement than cute dogs in costumes?

April was able to enlist the services of Aussie, Maizie and the other therapy dog teams through a member of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about therapy dogs, becoming a certified therapy dog team, or seeking the services of therapy dogs for your own facility, be sure to visit therapydogs.com!

Ahimsa House

by Amanda Newsom

Since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it was a clear choice of which organization to feature for October. Ahimsa House works across the state of Georgia to provide assistance to pets affected by domestic violence by offering them a place to live for up to 60 days in volunteer foster homes or boarding facilities. Their mission is a unique one that brings together two causes that aren’t as different as they may seem: animal welfare and domestic violence (DV). 

Many victims who are actively working to escape an abuser don’t seek shelter as early as they would like because they fear for the safety of their pets. Studies show that abusers who have harmed a DV victim’s pet are more violent and controlling to their victims than those who are not pet abusers. Further, pet abuse has been shown to be a predictor for intimate partner violence, and pet abusers are likely to either already be or to become domestic violence offenders. 

Because pets may be the only form of unconditional love and the only coping mechanism for DV victims with pets, abusers may harm or kill pets as a way to prevent the victim from leaving or as a way to coerce them into returning the relationship when pets are left behind. Victims who want to seek help and don’t know about services provided by organizations like Ahimsa House may stay with their abusers because they don’t want anything to happen to their pets. 

Few shelters in Georgia allow pets to be admitted with victims, so Ahimsa House works with shelters—such as Project Safe here in Athens, GA—and individual victims to provide assistance during times of crisis. “There are unfortunately very few services available to survivors of domestic violence who have pets… Ahimsa House empowers individuals to enter their pets into a safe place where they will receive love and care while he or she focuses on escaping DV.” 

Ahimsa House was founded in 2004 and has provided over 72,300 nights of safe, confidential shelter to pets, including addressing any medical needs of the pets while in their care. Last year they assisted 137 clients and their 225 pets, and as of late September this year, they’ve already served 129 clients and answered over 2,500 calls to their crisis hotline.  

When a person seeks shelter from domestic abuse, they can call Ahimsa House’s 24-hour crisis hotline to complete the necessary paperwork and set up a time to drop off their pets at a veterinary partner. This process sometimes happens over weeks or within hours of calling, depending on the client’s situation. The pet will be placed in an approved foster home or may be cared for at a boarding facility. Once the client is ready to move out of their shelter, they are able to pick their pets up within 48 hours. Ahimsa House even assists clients with paying pet deposits and providing supplies to best assist them with staying together with their beloved pets.

Ahimsa House is the only organization in Georgia providing this type of assistance, and as such, they depend on volunteers, grants, individual donations, in-kind donations and sponsorships to continue. They not only help dogs and cats—they have also helped horses, birds, snakes, hamsters, ferrets, turtles, rabbits and other species as an inclusive service. 

If you or someone you know needs assistance with pets to escape an abuser, please call Ahimsa House’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 404-452-6248. You can learn more about their services online at ahimsahouse.org, which has a safety button at the top of every screen on their website to quickly close the window if necessary. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer or foster home for Ahimsa House, you can complete an application online.

Read to Rover

by Amanda Newsom

The Athens-Clarke County Library started its Read to Rover program in 2000 to “provide reluctant readers an opportunity to read in a comforting and supportive environment,” according to Evan Bush, ACC Library Youth Services Coordinator. 

Dogs certified by Therapy Dog International are scheduled for the program, and anywhere from 10 to 20 kids show up to each program with their accompanying adults. Each child selects a book on their reading level of their choosing. Bush says, “Ironically, many children select books about cats because they think dogs will be interested in stories about cats.” The children are aware of their audience, and they are all thoughtful in the types of books they choose to read to the dogs. 

When it’s their turn, each child and their adult (or even entire family) will go in to read to the dog. Bush says, “All of the therapy dogs are excellent listeners and enjoy getting petted as well, which is its own positive incentive.” The Read to Rover program benefits children in that it allows them to read aloud in a non-judgmental, comforting setting in order to build confidence in their reading abilities. It also gives them a positive memorable experience with reading so they will be more apt to read on their own more frequently. Parents or guardians can use the same principles from the program at home by having their children read to their own pets. 

Studies show that children who participate in these kinds of programs increase their reading abilities more quickly. Corinne Serra Smith of National-Louis University studied the Sit Stay Read program in Chicago in 2009 and found that children who participated in the program improved their reading abilities by 20 percent more than the control group. Other studies have produced results with similarly consistent findings, as well.

The Read to Rover program also helps to build more compassion and empathy toward animals. This is evident in the children choosing books that they think the dogs will enjoy. It’s also a great way for children who don’t have dogs at home, or who aren’t comfortable around dogs in general, to learn more about them in a calm setting.

The Read to Rover program will pick back up this September and is generally held the third Sunday of each month. The dates and times can be found on the children’s event calendar at athenslibrary.org.

Guide Dog Foundation

by Michaela Gardner

Photo Courtesy of Megan Krivsky

Photo Courtesy of Megan Krivsky

Megan Krivsky and her one-year-old black Labrador Retriever Shadow are a special team. Shadow is a guide dog in training, and Megan is her “puppy raiser.” Megan and Shadow have an important job to help fulfill the Guide Dog Foundation’s mission “to improve the quality of life for people who are blind, have low vision or have other special needs.” 

The Guide Dog Foundation was established in 1946 in Smithtown, NY with the goal of providing guide dogs to the blind and visually-impaired, free of charge. Students come to the foundation in order to learn training methods and to be paired with a dog that works best with them as an individual. The original training campus in Smithtown, which houses offices, residences for guide dog students, kennels, and a puppy nursery, is still used today.

The foundation is a 501(c)3 charity, therefore it operates solely on donations. More than $50,000 goes into breeding, raising and training a single guide dog. All guide dog candidates begin their training at eight weeks old when they are sent to live with a volunteer puppy raiser. Puppy raisers are responsible for basic socialization and obedience training, as well as exposing puppies to a wide range of stimuli and environments. 

Photo Courtesy of Megan Krivsky

Photo Courtesy of Megan Krivsky

Guide dog puppies-in-training are a common sight on the University of Georgia campus, as well as downtown. When asked what got her interested in being a puppy raiser for the Guide Dog Foundation, Megan said that as a freshman, she saw the guide dog puppies around campus, which made her miss her own dog back home. She says she has stuck with it because “not only do you get to spend every day with an amazingly smart and cute dog, but you also get to give back to someone that truly needs that dog.” As a senior at UGA, Megan faces certain challenges in raising a guide dog puppy and managing schoolwork. She says on those days, the hardest part of the process is staying patient with Shadow, and Shadow remaining patient with her. 

Patience was especially tested when Shadow first came into Megan’s life as an 8-week-old “sweet little puppy that [wasn’t] house trained and [knew] pretty much nothing.” Soon enough, however, a new routine was established, and Megan and Shadow became accustomed to going everywhere and doing everything together. For Megan, the sacrifices are worth it when Shadow masters a new command, or when the pair are out in public and people don’t even notice Shadow’s presence at first. “That is seriously one of the best compliments ever because it means she is behaving perfectly, and all of our hard work is paying off,” Megan says. 

Don’t worry, it’s not all work and no play for Shadow. Megan recalls her favorite memory with Shadow to be the first time they went to the beach together. After having to learn the hard way that sand and salt water are not, in fact, edible, Shadow had the time of her life splashing through the waves and “running to her heart’s content on the beach.” 

If you’re interested in helping the Guide Dog Foundation but don’t think you can commit to raising a puppy for up to 18 months, there are other options. Megan says that if there’s one thing she would like people to know about the Guide Dog Foundation, it’s that “anyone can be involved. There are many facets of the program that people of varying schedules and lifestyles can join. It won’t be easy, but I 100 percent promise you it is worth it!” 

 

There are more ways to help the Guide Dog Foundation other than volunteering to raise a puppy—you can donate money, help set up fundraisers or toy drives, and even volunteer at the Guide Dog kennels. Visit www.guidedog.org for more information!

Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE) Wildlife Center

Photo: AWARE Wildlife Center

Photo: AWARE Wildlife Center

by Amanda Newsom

Founded in 1999 by Michael Ellis, Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE) Wildlife Center is one of the few wildlife rehabilitation centers in Georgia. Their mission is to “rehabilitate injured and orphaned wildlife and to educate the public on how to peacefully coexist with our wild neighbors,” and they help upwards of 2,000 animals each year, which is pretty impressive. AWARE accepts any wild animal in need of help—such as owls, songbirds, turtles, snakes, deer, possums and bobcats—as long as they have the capacity to do so. If they’re unable to take an animal in, they can provide references to other organizations that may be able to help. 

Recently, the center received a duck that had a four-pronged fish hook that had punctured through its lower bill and tongue. Under anesthesia, they were able to cut and remove the hook, and then they administered antibiotics and monitored the duck until it was able to eat and drink. Once its tongue was fully healed, AWARE released it back to the pond where it was found. Like this lucky duck, AWARE releases every animal that recovers in their care back to the wild.

Photo: AWARE Wildlife Center

Photo: AWARE Wildlife Center

Many local shelters get calls asking about wildlife they’ve found and what to do to help them, so we asked Scott Lange, Executive Director of AWARE Wildlife Center, about some of the tops questions they get. He said they get tons of calls from people who find fledgling birds on the ground, but this is actually part of their natural life cycle where they need a few days on the ground to learn how to fly. 

They also get calls throughout the year from people who see animals like coyotes, foxes or raccoons in their yards. Lange says it’s important to remember that these animals pose no threat to you. “They only want food and safety, and people offer neither. Next, know that trapping or killing these animals—in addition to being cruel—is counterproductive, as it simply opens up territory for others of the species, spurring them to overbreed to take advantage. In short, removing these animals can leave you with more than when you started.”

One of the biggest takeaways from AWARE is that unless you can tell an animal is in distress or injured, the best thing to do is leave them be. They are wild animals and being in nature is what they do best! Sometimes attempts to help wildlife inadvertently lead to doing more harm than good. 

If you want to help the wild animals at AWARE Wildlife Center, you can of course donate online at awarewildlife.org, as the organization relies on individual donations to purchase items like food and medical supplies. You may also consider volunteering—it’s a bit of a trek from the Athens area to their facility in Lithonia, but AWARE has volunteers who drive up to three hours for their weekly shift, so it sounds like it is worth the trip!


Wildlife Tips

If you find an animal that truly needs your help:

  • Always put your safety first, and be careful! 
  • After safely retrieving a hurt animal, confine them to a box or portable carrier, and put it in a dark, quiet room. 
  • Many injured animals need extra warmth, so you can put a heating pad under part of the carrier so they have both a warm and cool space to help regulate their body temperature.
  • Contact a wildlife rehabilitation center such as AWARE to ask for advice. 
  • Don’t give food or water to an injured animal until you know what the next step will be for treatment according to professional advice.

Try to eliminate food sources outdoors, like accessible trash cans and pet food, to deter wildlife from coming onto your property if you perceive them as a nuisance.

Young wild animals are better off being left alone—their parents know the best way to care for them. When you hang around the babies wondering what to do next, you’re deterring the parent from returning to the area, which may prevent them for caring for their young. Unless you see a specific injury or witness something happening to the parent, leave them be and do not attempt to move them. 

Leave it to the professionals. Rehabilitating wild animals should only be done by licensed organizations who have the knowledge and capabilities to give them the best chance at recovery. 

Stu Hopps Finds a New Home as Quincy

by Amanda Newsom

Photo: Georgia House Rabbit Society

Photo: Georgia House Rabbit Society

Last December around the holidays, my mom opened her back door to find a matted grey rabbit that clearly didn’t belong in the wild and texted me a photo, and so we were immediately on our all-too-familiar rescue mission for him. From my experience working with local shelters, I knew the best organization to contact first: the Georgia House Rabbit Society (GHRS).

We contacted them and agreed to help find a foster home until they could get him vetted and up for adoption. Luckily, a friend put us in touch with Stephanie Aarstad who had experience working in shelters and with rabbits. She agreed to take him in temporarily, and so the path to a new home began!

 Quincy started his new journey in life as Stu Hopps, named by Stephanie’s boys who are big fans of the movie Zootopia. His fur was matted, he has a crooked foot from a prior injury that didn’t heal properly, and he didn’t seem to feel well when Stephanie first got him. GHRS provided everything she needed to care for Stu Hopps, from housing to food to toys—the only things they don’t provide fosters with is love and greens. They gave her an educational packet and talked her through everything she needed to know about caring for a rabbit. 

Though Stephanie had been around rabbits at previous jobs as an animal control officer and veterinary staff, she had never owned one before. About her decision to foster Stu, Stephanie said, “I love rabbits and thought it would be fun to have one visit for a while—plus my kids would get a kick out of it. We had a spare room, a suitable cage and lots of love to spare.”

Once Stu was neutered and had a vet visit to be sure he was healthy, he began to feel better and act more like himself. Stephanie and her family earned his trust and learned more about rabbits as pets. They are quiet and clean pets, though, as Stephanie said, “successfully keeping a pet rabbit healthy and happy is not as simple as sticking it in a rabbit hutch outdoors and throwing it poor-quality pellets and water occasionally.” They do require care beyond the efforts of having a dog or cat, but they can be wonderful companions. 

Stu enjoyed time on his floor pallet with his foster family and enjoyed playing with toys—his favorite was a jingle ball that he would throw up in the air! When he wasn’t playing or following Molly the Maltese (his new instant friend, mostly on his end) around the house, he would relax on the couch next to Stephanie or one of her boys. If he required pets, he would nudge one of them with his head to let them know they had a job to do. 

Stephanie says, “I never knew rabbits had so much personality. Stu Hopps taught me so much about rabbits. By the time he left our house to be put on display for adoption at the [GHRS] shelter, he was a different rabbit. He trusted us, loved us and communicated with us. He was no longer skinny. His fur was shinny and soft, not matted, and he was happy. I absolutely took so much joy in turning something that was neglected and tossed out to fend for itself into a beautiful, healthy, loving furry friend.”

GHRS is the only licensed rabbit rescue in Georgia. A no-kill and self-funded organization, their goal is to educate, rescue, rehabilitate and re-home domestic rabbits. They work throughout the state to help rabbits like Stu Hopps, a classic example of the work that they do on a daily basis. With the help of Stephanie as a foster parent, they were able to find Stu Hopps a new home this May with a family who has four other rabbits. They named him Quincy, fitting as their fifth rabbit, and he bonded particularly well with their rabbit Jackie who is now his “wife.” 

Quincy had a happy ending that could have easily ended badly, as he clearly was a pet who had been let out into the wild by someone who decided they no longer wanted him. Domestic rabbits cannot survive on their own in the wild, so taking them to a shelter is a more humane way to find a new home for an unwanted pet rabbit. 

If you are considering a rabbit as a new pet, the GHRS is a perfect first place to look. They offer a Rabbit 101 class that will help you learn about rabbits as pets, and they have some great information on their website: HouseRabbitGA.com. If you’re not quite ready to commit to the 10 to 12 years as a rabbit parent, they are always looking for temporary foster homes or volunteers who can spend even a couple hours a week at their shelter in Marietta, GA!