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!