Therapist Uses Pets to Lead Patients to Recovery

Therapist uses pets to lead patients to recovery

05/17/2003

By ALINE McKENZIE / The Dallas Morning News

A purring cat helps convince a stroke victim that she can move her arm. A puppy welcomes a teenager who has been leery of psychotherapy. An older dog perks up the father of a patient who has just had his own dog put down. At therapist Sara Harper's office, there's always something going on at knee level.

With two Tonkinese cats, two yellow Labrador retrievers, and some "noncertified therapy fish," the suite in Plano has a homey atmosphere designed to relax patients and draw them out.

Cynthia Kormos, recovering from a stroke, cautiously pets Elliot the cat while doing biofeedback to help her use her arm better.

"This is forcing you to use your hand, and giving you more confidence," Dr. Harper tells Ms. Kormos. "You can see with Elliot, you know you're not hurting him. ... Can you feel him purring? If you were hurting him, he wouldn't be purring."

"I had to hold onto the walls [for balance] when I first started coming here," says Ms. Kormos, 42, who lives in Corsicana. She began coming to Dr. Harper in early 2002, with her left side still profoundly affected nine years after the stroke.

The therapy is increasing the feeling and motion in her left side, she says. "The animals do help you relax."

Therapy dogs have been used for decades to visit patients in hospitals or nursing homes, but originally, they were just there for brief visits, says Maryellen Elcock, director of animal-assisted therapy at The Delta Society, an association that promotes the use of animals in therapy.

As loving as a dog can be, however, it takes more than a good disposition to become a certified therapy dog. In addition to basic obedience training, a dog must go through extra classes, learning not to be afraid of wheelchairs, walkers and so on, and to tolerate extra-rough handling.

The use of animals in active therapy is a growing trend; however, no exact statistics are available because there's no insurance code for it that allows the trend to be tracked, she says.

"I think it's a kind of softening of the setting," she says of animal-assisted therapy. "There's a presence of unconditional love and acceptance in the room."

Videotapes of autistic children have shown that dogs calm them down tremendously just by their presence. Then, with specific tasks such as grooming a dog, the children can learn to focus on a task, something that's very difficult for an autistic child.

"It focused them on something besides their own anxiety," Ms. Elcock says.

Therapist Linda Carmicle, Ph.D., of Plano uses her border collie, Macy, to help clients relax.

"She is just such a people lover," she says. "When I work with adolescents, or even with depressed people, sometimes they'll be petting her for half a session... When people are withdrawn, she goes over and holds out her paw to shake hands.

With "people who really like her, she rolls over, like, 'rub my tummy,' " Dr. Carmicle says.

At Dr. Harper's office, even people who aren't clients benefit. As Ms. Kormos does her therapy, Brie, one of the Labs, is out in the reception room playing tennis-ball soccer with Ms. Kormos' father, Roy Samsel.

Brie spontaneously taught herself to play soccer with a young boy, Dr. Harper says. Brie started kicking the ball to him with her front paw, and he kicked it back. This went on, back and forth, until he was kicking very hard, expressing anger he had been holding in.

Six-month-old Pat, the other Lab, earned her keep when she was a bit younger, when Mr. Samsel had had his own dog put down. Normally a hyper puppy nicknamed "The Piranha," she settled at his feet for the entire time he was there, apparently sensing his grief.

While Ms. Kormos has her therapy, Craig McCrary, a 13-year-old from Carrollton, also does biofeedback in an adjacent room. With electrodes taped to his head, he focuses on calming one type of brain wave to treat attention deficient disorder caused by two head injuries.

Craig has also been diagnosed with depression, says his mother, Valerie, but resisted therapy.

"When Craig found out you had a puppy, he couldn't wait to come here," she tells Dr. Harper. "This is his sort of sanctuary with these animals. He loves to come here and spend time with them. It's more than an icebreaker. I think there's a lot of safety in this environment for him."

Craig says the treatment has helped him control his impulsiveness.

"I don't say things that I don't want to say, more often," he says. "I'm getting better grades and I don't get in trouble as often."

In addition to biofeedback, Dr. Harper does family therapy, where the animals also are helpful.

"The research is very clear on the effects of animals," Dr. Harper says. "My belief is it's hard enough to come in for therapy, and I think it makes people more relaxed."

"With Brie, she was 8 weeks old and I didn't really know what I was doing," she says. "I had a family where one of the parents had had a major, drawn-out illness, and that particular parent had just died. There was a lot of grief and anger in two school-aged boys – they didn't even sit on the same side of the room, much less the same side of the couch together. I just spontaneously let this little 8-week-old puppy out of her cage and they were petting her, and they were crying, and it was like she was able to help them let go of their grief."

Brie is also a very sensitive barometer of anger, Dr. Harper says. She'll leave the room if voices are raised. This makes it hard for a client to deny that he or she got angry – "You cannot deny what the dog did," Dr. Harper says.

The dogs also prompt people to tell Dr. Harper about their own pets, particularly from childhood, which steers their mind toward younger days that they might need to discuss in therapy.

"If people come in relaxed to talk therapy, it makes things easier for them and me," she says.

There's been only once that Dr. Harper has "fired" a patient for threatening the animals, after he became aggressive with Katherine during marriage therapy. First, he hoisted her in the air above his head, which she didn't like, and after Dr. Harper put the cat in a cage, he kept banging on the door.

The animals' well-being comes first, and she told the couple to find another therapist.

There's just one other reason that a client might not work out.

"For people who are allergic to animals, they're just going to have to find another therapist," she shrugs.

E-mail: amckenzie@dallasnews.com

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