Meet our Pawsome Pet Therapy Teams

Therapy Dogs

June 25th is Take Your Dog to Work Day!

Learn more about the hospital’s pawsome therapy dogs and the important work they do.

Bethany Children’s Health Center is fortunate to have dedicated, experienced therapy dog teams visit on a regular basis to work with patients. The main benefit of Animal Assisted Therapy is the overall social and emotional support the dogs provide during a patient’s hospital stay.

“There is something special about the ‘human-animal bond’, seeing our patients light up when the dog enters the room,” says Heidi Ross, Recreational Therapist. “Being able to participate in a normalized activity like they would have at home is so important for our patient’s overall quality of life.”

Meet the Therapy Teams

Billy Thomas, a registered dog trainer, has been visiting the hospital with his therapy dogs since 2008. He first visited with Patience, a mixed-breed pup who was the first recognized deaf therapy dog in the country, and the winner of PetSmart Charities first ever contest for the Best Rescue Dog in America. Following in Patience’s footsteps are Billy’s two Australian Shepherds, Whiskey and Izzy, who each have logged several hundreds of hours of therapy work across multiple organizations, and are also deaf.

Billy says his dogs are suited to therapy work because they are calm and sweet. He also feels their deafness has a lot to do with their success. Heidi agrees, saying, “Whiskey and Izzy are great at cuddles and comfort, but I love that I can share their unique abilities, like understanding hand signals, with patients. They are a great example of how even though we may have a deficit in one area, we still have strengths that make us unique, special and amazing individuals.”

Abby, a 10-year-old mixed-breed rescue dog, comes to the hospital with Grant Brannum. Abby was voted “most likely to be a therapy dog” in her very first puppy training class. This inspired Grant to work with Abby to be certified as a Canine Good Citizen and a certified therapy dog with Human Animal Link of Oklahoma (HALO).

“Abby has an outgoing personality and has never met anyone she didn’t like,” Grant says. “She is very smart and obedient, making her manageable in all sorts of situation. She’s also the most tolerant dog I have ever seen.” Grant’s daughter Macie, who is a junior therapy dog handler, rounds out the team and visits when school’s not in session. “Macie and I often leave the hospital feeling like we’ve gotten as much out of the experience as the children did,” says Grant.

Recreational Therapist, Rachel Smith, says, “The therapy dogs we have here are the perfect fit for what they do, and it takes a very specialized dog to do their job. They can get put through many stressful situations when working with kids and handle each one with ease. Not every dog can do that.”

The Work

Pet therapyWhen therapy teams visit, there are a variety of activities that may take place. Patients meet and interact with the dogs by petting, brushing, playing fetch to work on fine motor skills and upper extremity coordination and strength, in a fun, purposeful and relaxing way. Walking the dogs can address endurance and activity tolerance, while giving the children a sense of self-confidence and responsibility. Billy likes to let the therapists take the lead in sessions and works with them on how to communicate with the dogs.

“The responses from a therapist’s point of view are really neat to see when you have patients who are very anxious, shy and reserved,” says Rachel. “Sometimes just getting them out of their room and around others is a huge step for them. Seeing them come out of their shell week by week and interact with the dog and their peers is a big deal.”

Heidi adds, “The biggest outcome I’ve witnessed through the program is improved motivation. The therapy dogs have a way of motivating our patients to complete hard tasks without the patient even realizing it.”

Special Stories

The benefits of pet therapy are wide ranging, and each patient’s reaction is unique. Grant and Abby visited a patient with a brain injury regularly with therapist Heidi. Limited mobility prevented the patient from petting Abby with their hands, so Heidi positioned Abby at the patient’s feet. Heidi began to notice more movement in the patient’s toes each week and was soon able to ask the patient to “pet the dog with your right foot”, and the patient responded.

“All of the progress we witnessed each week was amazing! After some time, the patient would smile and turn towards Abby when she walked in the room,” recalls Heidi. “Abby made such an impact on this patient, who looked forward to Abby’s visit each week.”

Rachel is currently seeing the positive effects of pet therapy with a patient with a spinal cord injury. “Nothing motivates him more than coming to pet therapy group and seeing the dogs,” Rachel shares. “It brings him a sense of comfort and peace during these hard times, and I have seen him become more socially aware throughout his stay by coming to group.”

Pet therapy is allowing the patient to learn how to interact with the dogs and other people, initiate conversation, and feel a sense of purpose as he takes care of the dogs each week.

Taking Your Dog to Work

Many thanks to our pet therapy teams for their dedication and caring. They truly provide a special service to our patients and our therapists.

Do you think you and your dog have what it takes to be a therapy team? If you are interested in learning more about pet therapy certification, here are some resources:

If you’d like to find out more about volunteering at Bethany Children’s Health Center, click here.

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