Therapy Dogs Walk Patients Down Road to Recovery

Therapy Dogs Walk Patients Down Road to Recovery

Published: June 21, 2012 (Issue # 1713)


Eva, nine, lies on four-year-old bull terrier Shkoda, a therapy dog.

They hold the title of man’s best friend, are irreplaceable members of the police force, served in World War II, are excellent guards, lead sled teams and serve as shepherds. They assist the deaf and blind and are faithful companions. These talented beings are not humans, but dogs. Now four-legged friends can even be therapists.

Research has proven that dogs have a positive influence on the human mind and make people happy.

“We’re born with a feeling of love toward dogs. Dogs have served as guards for people as far back as we can remember, so this is something we don’t forget,” said Maria Maltseva, deputy head of the Association of Support and Development of Canine Therapy. “This love and trust helps serve as the basis of canine therapy,” she added.

Those who believe in therapy dogs say that another plus is that people are not concerned with what dogs think of them. This helps sick people not to feel embarrassed by their illness or that they are different from or inferior to others. This feeling then helps patients move forward toward active rehabilitation. The good mood and relaxed feeling pets encourage facilitate an effective recovery.

Dogs may work in children’s homes and homes for the elderly, or help patients overcome their fears. They also help in the treatment of severely handicapped adults and children.

Canine therapy is an officially recognized form of treatment, but in Russia, dogs are not allowed in hospitals.

“In Europe, the U.S. and Canada, therapy dogs are even allowed to enter the intensive care unit. Such highly trained animals are greatly respected. In Russia we cannot even go on the subway with working dogs,” said Maltseva.

Not every dog, however, can work in therapy. Just like people, animals need to complete a training course. Dogs must be intelligent, patient, good-natured, friendly and have a balanced temperament. The training can last from four to ten months, and to complete the course, the dogs must pass an exam. Three adjudicators mark the exam, including a doctor, an insurance company representative (the dogs might sustain injuries while working and therefore must be insured) and a dog trainer. A fourth judge serves as an observer and is either a veterinarian or a doctor.

“The training follows an international testing system,” said Maltseva. “The exam is conducted under conditions similar to those of a hospital room. During the exam, someone will run, jump, scream, move around the room in a wheelchair and throw food in order to imitate various stressful situations. Under these conditions, the dog must stay calm, friendly and self-confident and never frighten or cause harm to the patient,” she continued.

Only 20 to 25 percent of dogs pass the exam, and receive an internationally accepted diploma. In St. Petersburg there are 37 certified therapy dogs. According to the association’s data for the last 37 years, in the U.S., for example, only 10,000 out of 120,000 dogs who took the exam passed it and are eligible to work in canine therapy. Due to the stringent selection requirements, breeding such dogs especially for the purpose is impossible.

“Only a beloved pet that has grown up in a family can be used in canine therapy,” said Maltseva. “Moreover, dogs raised in special nurseries by breeders aren’t familiar with irritating things that surround us in everyday life and therefore don’t know how to react to them.”

Canine therapy depends a lot on the volunteers who donate the therapy dogs.


Dogs must pass a selective course and exam in order to become therapy dogs.

“I always wanted to help, and my bull terrier Shkoda always loved children, so we decided she should be used for the common good,” said volunteer Maria Nikultseva.

“Shkoda understands the importance of what she does and is happy to work. Once she got sick and couldn’t work. There were real tears in her eyes when she saw the kids and couldn’t go up to them and spend time with them.”

Previously, four-year-old Shkoda served as a rescue dog, but was forced to find another specialty for health reasons. She is the only certified bull terrier to work in canine therapy.

“Unfortunately, people are used to seeing bull terriers as monsters, but this is not the case,” said Nikultseva. “Children love Shkoda. Parents are sometimes afraid of how a bull terrier will behave with their kids — that Shkoda might attack them, but she is a child’s best friend. She is not only placid and friendly, but makes children feel sure of themselves. The color white is also calming, and kids often choose to spend time with Shkoda over other dogs.”

After a canine therapy course, nine-year-old Eva Oslan, who had a phobia of animals after suffering a serious attack by a cat, lies on a completely unperturbed Shkoda and is not afraid at all.

“I found information on the Internet about canine therapy,” said Eva’s mother Yana Oslan. “We started out by just approaching dogs and touching them. After the second lesson everything was going well. We got very good results and all of Eva’s fears went away.”

Dogs can also help adults deal with their fears. After being trapped under the rubble of a house that was destroyed, one woman was afraid of doors and windows and spent all of her time in a room with curtains covering the windows.

“After eight months of [standard] treatment there was no improvement,” Maltseva explained. “After five or six training sessions with a therapy dog, she pulled back the curtain to watch the dog through the window as it left her house. After completing the therapy course, she could even go to the shop with the dog.”

Another example is a girl with severe infantile cerebral palsy. Her arms were rigid, while the rest of her body and legs were limp and uncontrollable.

“She couldn’t sit. But during her third canine therapy training session she started smiling and after the course she could even walk with the help of others,” said Maltseva.

“Of course, canine therapy is not the solution to everything, it simply helps real doctors. Sometimes it doesn’t help. But it has been really fantastic and effective in some cases,” she said.

Dogs can also inspire and encourage people with their own stories and conditions. Faith, an American dog, has only two hind legs, but doesn’t let this hinder her. Her owner taught Faith to walk like a person — on two legs. For many years, Faith has been visiting hospitals and helping patients to believe that if a dog can walk on its hind legs, people can do something just as incredible. This helps people overcome their own challenges, get back the will to live and proves that people can deal with any situation, regardless of how insurmountable it might seem.

Faith has helped a lot of people in difficult situations and sends the message that you don’t have to look perfect to be perfect.

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