By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury
Kahlua, a 4-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, was in dog heaven when a group of students rubbed her tummy, pet her smooth fur and allowed her to lick their faces. While it may not seem like it, Kahlua was actually on the job as a certified pet therapy dog. Therapy dogs or therapy animals are trained to be a comfort to people in a variety of circumstances including at schools, hospitals and retirement homes.
Kahlua’s owner, Audrey Swartley, is a therapeutic riding instructor at “Fun-E Farm T.O.O.” in Gilberstville. Swartley said the farm uses horses to service individuals with disabilities through riding lessons and camps. She said Kahlua has had a calm, easy going demeanor since she was a puppy and works well with the children that come to the therapeutic farm. For these reasons, Swartley had her certified through Therapy Dogs International this past year.
Swartley said some people find it easier to interact with animals than with other people because animals have a very calming effect.
“I just think that they have a bonding experience with people,” she said.
Last month, Swartley and Kahlua visited Coventry Christian Schools in Lower Pottsgrove as part of a mental health awareness initiative. Nichole Tucker, learning support teacher and coordinator at the school, said it was important for their students to learn about the different therapies that can help with mental health.
“The issues that affect our youth today are heavy and they are real,” she said. ‘My goal with having a mental health initiative is that awareness leads to acceptance. The more we start talking and we break the silence, we can start to end the stigma.”
Throughout the month of May, which was national Mental Health Awareness Month, the students at Coventry Christian Schools attended a variety of assemblies on the subject. Tucker said students learned that many people struggle with mental health issues and that it’s just as important as physical health. Tucker introduced the students to pet therapy so they knew it was okay to seek help and that there are many choices to do so besides just traditional therapy.
“Hopefully this is a bridge for them to be able to explore those options and not just keep things bottled up,” she said.
Animals are being used to help with more than mental health. Karen Gerth is the founder and executive director of Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services which is based out of Lancaster. As part of the service; there are dogs, cats, horses and even a pig. Gerth said they have therapy teams that work in surrounding counties such as York and Berks as well as in northern Maryland. The organization doesn’t charge for services and depends on donations.
Gerth said the animal therapy service began by having animals visit people in retirement homes and then branched off from there. Now their animals work with individuals doing occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy and more. Gerth said a lot of the time, the animals help to motivate people during their therapy session.
“For physical therapy, they may have to stand for 10 minutes and that’s not fun but if you’re throwing a ball for a dog to retrieve, it’s a lot more fun,” she said.
The organization’s therapy dogs are also used at schools and with children for behavioral reasons. Gerth said getting to play with the dogs is a reward for students that do their homework and behave well in the classroom. The dogs also work with at-risk teens who get to train the dogs in order to build self-confidence. Some of the dogs work with abused children and people that have been sexually assaulted. Gerth said people don’t look forward to having to retell tragic stories to therapists but having a dog with them gives them comfort and helps ease the mind.
Gerth said when people are around animals it gives them something to feel good about and opens them up to talking.
“We had a child with selective mutism that hadn’t spoken in six months while working with her therapist and one of the dogs was walking down the hall to go to the physical therapy gym and she called out ‘Oh my gosh, there goes the dog!’” Gerth said.
“There’s so many ways they help. People just open up,” she said.