Lend a Helping Paw

Miami Valley Pet Therapy Association helps those in need with loving animals

By Emma Jarman

All the animals I’ve ever had have behaved in such a manner that I was almost driven to therapy on multiple occasions. But apparently, while Dickens the miniature schnauzer was dragging my bike down the sidewalk with my shoelaces tangled and my 9-year-old knees dragging along the pavement, and Ginny the guinea pig was hiding under my 17-year-old bed, scratching away like the hook-handed bandit of urban legend, mounting upon my childhood carry-over fear of things that go bump in the night, other, more civilized domestics were learning how to help people. The Miami Valley Pet Therapy Association (MVPTA), based in Troy, is one organization that facilitates such activity.

Founded in April of 2000 by Major Janice White, who also founded the Wright Patterson Air Force Base Pet Therapy program, the MVPTA was formed as a community-based pet therapy program independent of WPAFB and was one of the initial goals of the Wright-Patterson program. Currently, the MVPTA has 145 members and is comprised 100 percent of community volunteers and their animals. Its mission statement claims the goal of the MVPTA is to “promote the use of highly trained domesticated pets to improve the health, independence and quality of life of the citizens in the greater Miami Valley.”

The term “domesticated pets” is an important one, as the program is not constituted solely of canines. Everything from dogs to cats and rabbits participate in the program, visiting patients in hospitals, residents of senior living facilities, patrons at libraries and students at local schools. Fish and birds have been found to decrease stress levels and while horses and dolphins don’t often make hospital rounds, they are commonly used in therapy with autistic children. The members of the association serve more than 75 facilities in a six-county area, mostly in greater Dayton.

For those interested in becoming a part of the pet therapy team, there are a few things you should know about the program. Classes are offered in two cycles each year. The next cycle of classes starts August 27, with prescreening of the animals beginning August 20. All animals are welcome to training, but before they are accepted they should have basic obedience skills and be able to follow commands including sit, down, stay, come and heel. The ideal pet for the program will have a preexisting aptitude for therapy that involves a calm and confident personality with good manners, who is well socialized with other animals, humans and social situations. A good way to prepare your animal for training and eventual therapies is to take them everywhere. Go to parks, pet stores and friends’ homes with your pet and encourage others, including strangers, to pet and give attention to him. Walking on a variety of surfaces such as carpet, tile or grates is also encouraged to aid in the process, along with acclimatizing your pet to riding in elevators (can be done in parking garages for practice).

At the end of the training program, which is once a week for 10 weeks, your pet’s skills, including walking calmly through crowds and tolerating vigorous stimulation, will be assessed and recommendations will be made. The only requirement of the pet owner is commitment to the program. Teachers recommend at least once a week following the training program to work with your pet and refresh their therapy skills.

While some may question the effectiveness of pet therapy in medical situations, there are many studies that indicate it is proactive in not only leveling blood pressure, but that petting an animal can release dopamine and serotonin (the happy chemicals) in the brain which elevate mood. The power of positivity is strong and pet therapies are shown to encourage it. Children who undergo pet therapy have been shown to have less physical pain, as well.

But the effects are not all physical. Less surprisingly, says scientificamerican.com, there are many psychological benefits to animal therapy. Pet therapy can help elderly patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and can even reduce the stress of those in high-pressure jobs. So having animals in a hospital or classroom not only helps the patients and students, but puts their doctors and teachers at ease too!

It is clear that anyone can benefit from a little slobbery, hairy, unconditional love. Even British novelist George Eliot once wrote more than 150 years ago, “Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions and they pass no criticism.” It should be noted, one does not have to have their own animal to participate, so to get involved with the Miami Valley Pet Therapy Association as a volunteer, or to get hold of someone about visiting your facility with their pet, contact them at (937) 286-0026, visit them online at www.mvpta.com or check them out on Facebook.

Reach DCP freelance writer Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@DaytonCityPaper.com

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