Therapy Cat Series: New Therapy Adventures for Rainy and Me

Since Rainy became a certified therapy cat in May, we’ve continued to expand our training, visits, and related activities.

This past June, I attended an eight-hour hospice training session at Tabitha Health Care Services. The training introduced me to the histories of Tabitha and hospice. I also learned about other topics including: regulations, client care, communication, death and dying, bereavement, and volunteer services. Andy brought Rainy in the afternoon so that she could meet members of the hospice team.

The idea of hospice can be traced back to the fourth century AD, when religious orders opened their doors to pilgrims, the elderly, and the seriously ill. The word “hospice” itself comes from the Latin word “hospis” (meaning “host” and “guest”), and the word used to refer to a place of shelter and rest for the hungry or weary traveler.

The modern hospice movement, which focuses instead on providing specialized care to dying patients, was founded by Dame Cicely Saunders. She created the first modern hospice, St. Christopher’s Hospice, in London. Later, during a visit to Yale University in 1963, her lectures launched the development of hospice care in the U.S. The first modern hospice in the U.S. was founded in 1974. Currently, more than 1.65 million Americans and their families are in hospice care.

Tabitha Health Care began in 1886 as an orphanage. In 1907 it became a hospital in 1907. Then in the early 1960s, under the direction of Martha Maseman, Tabitha began to expand to home-based services that would eventually include hospice. Volunteers are an integral part of the latter, including animal therapy teams.

Animals have been used for therapy as far back as the 9th century. One of the first records of an established animal therapy program is of a farm in Belgium, which treated people with disabilities in part by having them work with farm animals. In the 1700s, an asylum in England recorded positive results from encouraging its residents to work on a farm on the asylum’s property. Later, in the 1800s, Florence Nightingale observed that animal companionship reduced anxiety and stress for both child and adult psychiatric patients. While her findings opened the door to the use of animals for therapy, Boris Levinson is considered the father of pet therapy. In 1964, after discovering that the presence of his dog had a positive effect on helping his young patients communicate, he coined the term “pet therapy” and brought the concept to the attention of the international medical community.

Today a wide variety of animals provide comfort and companionship to hospice clients. Rainy and I are proud to help meet that need, especially after hearing the statistic that 50% of people in nursing homes never have visitors.

This past July, Rainy and I started our hospice visits at Tabitha. It’s been a learning experience. Patients can interact with a therapy animal by watching the animal play with toys and perform tricks, interact with an animal by feeding and grooming it, or simply enjoy the animal’s presence while talking with a visitor or watching television.

Some patients have wanted Rainy to sit on their lap. Unfortunately, despite Rainy’s friendly personality, here’s where she struggles. Rainy loves to rub against patient as a greeting but sitting laps is another story.

Cat therapy handlers have offered me ideas for encouraging Rainy to sit on a resident’s lap. One suggestion was to use a basket, but Rainy showed no interest in the basket I bought her; it’s now been claimed by her oldest sister. Another suggestion was a cat bed. Cat therapy handlers noted that a bed would have additional perks such as extra comfort and protection. Unfortunately, the bed hasn’t increased her lap time either. A third suggestion was a blanket, and it’s with this we’ve had the greatest success. I’ve trained Rainy to stay on a blanket on the floor, and at times she’s generalized that to stay on the blanket when it’s placed on a patient’s lap. Sprinkling catnip on the blanket has helped too.

In the meantime, Rainy has learned to sit beside a patient. In this position, she’s at times been so comfortable she’s fallen asleep!

Another experience that’s been new to our therapy visits is that of meeting family members. While the patient’s happiness and comfort is the primary goal of hospice care, caring for the patient’s loved ones is also important. Sometimes family members are just as much in need of the comfort of a therapy animal as are the patients. A therapy animal can also lower anxiety levels, reduce feelings of sadness, and improve family members’ overall outlook on life. On one visit, I invited members of the patient’s to work on tricks with Rainy. They got a delight out of interacting with Rainy and watching her perform. On another visit, I encouraged family members to feed and groom Rainy. They were interested to know what I fed her and how she reacted to having her teeth cleaned and her nails trimmed. It thrilled me that Rainy was able to bring a little happiness to people who were going through such a stressful time.

This past July, I attended an afternoon R.E.A.D. training session given by Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs. R.E.A.D. stands for Reading Education Assistance Dogs. The goal of the program is to improve the literacy skills of children by having them read to dogs—or, in Rainy’s case, a cat Three other handlers were in attendance. None of us brought our pets, although maybe we should have, because at the end we were all required to take an exam and could have benefited from the comforting presence of our pets. Thankfully, we all passed!

One in four American children grow up without learning to read, and this is one reason that the R.E.A.D. program began in 1999. Sandy Martin, a registered nurse and board member of the Intermountain Therapy Animals, was motivated to create R.E.A.D. when she learned that 21% of children who can’t read by the end of fourth grade will end up on welfare or in prison. Research shows that children with low self-esteem are more willing to interact with animals than people. Children of course find it more fun to read to animals, and animals don’t laugh at or correct a child’s mistakes The R.E.A.D. program uses registered therapy animals that have been trained and tested for health, safety, skills, and temperament. Teams work with children in libraries, schools, and many other settings . Although the R.E.A.D. program started with dogs, it now includes cats and other companion animals.

Rainy and I are proud to be one of the 3,000 R.E.A.D pet therapy teams throughout the world. As a book lover myself, I’m excited for us to have the opportunity to encourage children to discover a love of literature. As additional perks, the program will allow me to draw on both my graphic design and education background, as the R.E.A.D manual recommends that handlers create booklets and other materials such as bookmarks that feature their pets. In addition, even though the idea of the program is for the children to read to animals, the handler might still offer reading support, except to phrase it as if the animal needs help. For example, I could say, “Rainy was confused by that word. She’d like you to explain it to her.”

This past spring, Rainy and I undertook one more therapy-related venture: We created an Instagram account for her, which now as over 50 followers. Her account description says: “Follow my adventures in therapy, agility, and other fun stuff that my mom and I do together. See photos of my sisters too.”

As you can tell, I’m a proud pet mom of Rainy. This is one reason that my husband designed two cat therapy shirts for my birthday gift. Another reason is that the shirts can serve as walking advertisements for cat therapy in general, and Rainy specifically. Even though cats are the most requested therapy animal after dogs, only 3% of all therapy animals are cats, and therefore more are needed. If your cat likes people and could be trained to use a leash and visit new places, and if you can spare time to bring happiness to others who need it, please contact me at allisontalkspetsATgmailDOTcom or I-CAT.


Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs

Marla and her dog, Kobie, were visiting patients at the Crete Hospital. As they prepared to leave for the day, a gentleman asked if Kobie could come visit his father. His father had had a stroke and wasn’t responding much to people talking to him. Marla asked Kobie sit on a chair by the sick man’s bed and then took the sick man’s hand and helped him pet Kobie’s head.  The man began to smile.  This was the first time he had smiled since having stroke. According to Marla Wademan, one of the founders of Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, it was a great honor to be part of someone’s like in this way. Moments like these exemplifies why pet therapy exists.

In 2003, Gale Lothrop and Marla Wademan started Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. as a way to strengthen the human-companion animal bond by allowing dogs to heal peoples’ hearts. Gale and Marla had already been doing therapy work as volunteers with the Angel Dog program at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital with their dogs Mysti and Kobie. While Gale and Maria loved volunteering at Madonna, they also wanted to visit and help people outside of the Madonna Hospital. To reach as many people as possible, they started their own therapy dog organization. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. now has approximately 70 members, with teams not only from Nebraska but also Kansas.

Photo from Healing Hearts Therapy Dog
Photo from Healing Hearts Therapy Dog

ALLISON: How did you set up contacts in the community?

MARLA: We basically used word of mouth at first. We then used the internet, newspapers, and social media.

ALLISON: What kind of training do you provide to potential therapy handlers and pets?

MARLA: We offer therapy dog classes for handlers and dogs. This class teaches handlers how to become a therapy dog team and how to use your dog to help bridge the gap between humans and animals.

ALLISON: What are the most typical places therapy pets are taken? What are the most unusual places therapy pets have gone?

MARLA: Our teams go to a variety of places. We have teams visiting hospitals, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, schools, college campuses, after-school programs, and businesses. We go where people need the love of a dog.

ALLISON: How often do therapy visits happen? How long is each visit? What do visits consist of?

Photo from Healing Hearts
Photo from Healing Hearts

MARLA: We ask our members to visit a minimum of twice a month. The length of the visits very from time to time. You may have a visit run longer because a client is having a bad day and really needs more time with the therapy dog.

I visit at Crete High School’s after school program twice a month. The length of our visit depends on how many students are there and how many need to see my therapy dog, Barkley.

We ask our members to keep their visits to no more than an hour and a half to two hours. The dogs get tired and we need to make sure we take care of our dogs.

Our visits consist of listening to the person we are visiting. It is amazing how our therapy dogs help start a conversation. We may ask the person if they ever have had a dog or just how his or her day is going. When people start to touch and pet our therapy dogs, people just open up.

ALLISON: What are some of your memorable pet therapy moments?

MARLA: I always tell the teams who take our class that your dog will know who needs them. I was giving a presentation about Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc., at a church in Lincoln. My current therapy dog, Barkley, was with me. While I was speaking, Barkley caught the eye of a gentleman in the group I was speaking to. Barkley kept looking at this gentleman. When I was finished with the presentation, the gentleman came up to Barkley and me. Barkley immediately bonded with the gentleman. I found out that the gentleman had just lost his dog. He was still grieving for his dog and Barkley knew it. He sat for the longest time just petting Barkley.

Everywhere Barkley and I visit, everyone knows Barkley. I’m kind of invisible and that’s just fine with me. In fact, Barkley and I were visiting some high school students. Barkley and I have been visiting the students since August. One of the students, who was down on the floor with Barkley, looked up at me and said,”What is your name?” I just had to laugh.

ALLISON:  How did the R.E.A.D. program start?

Sometimes kids who are learning to read get stressed, not because they aren’t capable of reading, but because they get nervous and self-conscious. They worry about making mistakes, they worry about looking dumb–and all those worries make it hard to focus. They dread reading in front of their friends, so they often “freeze up” and things just get worse. When they read with a dog, right away they start to relax, and then they forget about feeling self-conscious or nervous, and pretty soon things start to flow a little better. Before they know it, they are enjoying the experience of reading instead of dreading it. They are even looking forward to the next time.–Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs

MARLA: R.E.A.D. stands for Reading Education Assistance Dog. R.E.A.D. began in the fall of 1999. Sandi Martin, a registered nurse and board member of Intermountain Therapy Animals, thought that the benefits of therapy animals could also help children with reading. November 1999 was the first Reading Education Assistance Dogs program. They did a pilot program at one of Salt Lake City Libraries. The R.E.A.D. program was called “Dog Day Afternoons”.

Photo from Healing Hearts
Photo from Healing Hearts

Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. works with Intermountain Therapy Animals to provide training and reading programs. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs work with the Lincoln Libraries to provide a reading program called “R.E.A.D. to a Dog” and Healing Hearts Therapy Dogs Members help students with their reading twice a year. There is a fall and spring session. Parents sign their child up to read to one of our R.E.A.D. dogs for 15-20 minutes. Each session lasts for six weeks. It’s amazing to see a child relax and just read to a dog. The dog is nonjudgmental and has unconditional love for the child.

ALLISON:  Why should someone volunteer with your chapter or a similar group?

MARLA: Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. wants people who are joining for the right reason. When you do therapy work with a dog, you become invisible at times. If you are not okay with that, then you need to find a different way to volunteer. Most of our clients can tell you our dogs’ name, but probably don’t know the member’s name. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs, Inc. believes any therapy dog organization is worth taking a look at. Our members have numerous stories how their dogs have helped someone. That is what it is all about–helping people and giving people hope.

Healing Heart Therapy Dogs is a non-profit organization supported through annual membership dues. The group recognizes that interactions with specially trained animals help to transform a life of discouragement, fear, and sadness into one of happiness, independence, and hope. Healing Heart Therapy Dogs Teams serve as a bridge to help develop a caring relationship with children and adults in may settings. If dog therapy interests you, contact Healing Hearts Therapy Dog or the national R.E.A.D. program.