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Furry Friends and Animal Therapy: Discovering the therapeutic benefits of animals

Peoples and Grizzly share a kiss, as Ashley, an Atlanta Pet Partner volunteer, holds Grizzly. Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal

Two nonprofit organization in Atlanta, Paws for Life and Atlanta Pet Partners, certify therapy animals that bring joy to patients, doctors, nurses and students.

Pet Partners

Pet Partners, a national organization, runs on volunteer work from pet owners and therapy animals. Dan Barnhill, founding director of the Atlanta chapter, wanted to ease the stress that people often experience while in the hospital. Therapy animals create an environment where pain or stress is eliminated by the joy that the animal delivers.

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Dan Barnhill gets licked by his companion, Peoples, inside Student Center West Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal
Dan Barnhill gets licked by his companion, Peoples, inside Student Center West
Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal

“We go in and actually visit with the patients, and by doing that were taking their minds off of that whole world they’re involved in,” Barnhill said. “The animal is just a hundred percent accepting; they just want to love that person.”

In 2011, Atlanta Pet Partners got their national ids. Today, there are 65 teams of Pet Partners in the city. The team of volunteers travels to various hospitals like Emory, schools and mental health programs in Atlanta.

Giving Back

A small act of kindness brought tears to a cardiologist in critical condition after having a heart attack. Barnhill and his companion Peoples, a 6-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier rescued out of Anniston Alabama, visited the Emory Midtown ICU on many occasions but this moment was one that he remembers the most.

In 2008, Barnhill was hospitalized for 15 days, and the journey to recovery had many obstacles. While recovering, his doctor suggested that he find a hobby. His love for animals fueled a passion for giving back to the community.

Wake Forest University

“I wanted to join a group that gave back, a group that was national, not homegrown, that has rules and procedure with a good structure for the healthcare industry,” Barnhill said.

When Barnhill found out about Pet Partners, he knew that it was the right organization. Barnhill and Peoples started a new journey. After taking the proper courses, the team passed evaluations and Peoples became a certified therapy dog.

“It’s a wonderful experience to walk into a hospital where they want our animal therapy team to be, and it says volumes about the management of a healthcare facility,” Barnhill said. “It’s amazing to walk into an ICU where you normally would never see a dog or an animal, and these are patients that are critical just like I was.”

Animal Therapy

Therapy animals work for free hugs and affection. When the animals are working, they enjoy playing catch, taking naps with patients, backrubs and being petted.

The therapy animals are trained to help patients in many aspects, such as occupational therapy. With the assistance of an occupational therapist, the patient interacts with the animals to help them regain strength, memory recovery and speak.

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Atlanta Pet Partners volunteer embraces Cookie, a certified therapy golden retriever inside Student Center East. Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal

As stroke patients gain one-on-one therapy. Barnhill notices that the recovery process is faster when animals are incorporated.

“There’s a lot of things that the animal does in a natural way that changes the speed of recovery,” Barnhill said. “For a stroke patient they can’t even get their arm to corporate, so you will see them go from just dropping the ball to eventually being able to thrust it further.”

Pet Partners provide animal learning, animal assisted activity, and animal assisted therapy.  Barnhill and Peoples frequently visit Emory Hospital to greet patients, doctors, and nurses.

“He’s definitely changing their lives, he helps give them a reason to live and re-engage with life,” Barnhill said. “That’s a love that animals give freely, no reserve, no judging, no anything. That animal is there to connect with them.”

Animals Deserve Better

Animal lover and rescuer, Kimberly Brenowitz is the founder and president of Animals Deserve Better. After rescuing animals from kill shelters, Brenowitz wanted to start an organization that saved lives for humans and animals.

In collaboration with Pet Partners, organizations like Animals Deserve Better, are dedicated to making life easier for both animals and humans.

Paws for Life is a program facilitated by Animals deserve better,  which provides animals for people who need to be assisted through therapy or service dogs.

“Rescuing and adopting dogs from high kill shelters for over 20 years and meeting families and people with disabilities who adopted dogs,” Brenowitz said. “I wanted to combine the two and start placing them together rescuing two lives not one.”

Paws for Life

Paws for Life takes rescues animals from high kill shelters and trains them to be adoptable pets and service dogs. 30 percent of the dogs are trained to be service animals and the rest of the animals get adopted, according to the organization’s website.

“We rescue pregnant dogs and orphaned puppies from high kill shelters, those with the ability to become service dogs, and the other pups are adopted to loving families,” Brenowitz said.

The Paws for Life therapy team is dependent on volunteer work, and the organization has 21 animal therapy teams. Handlers and their certified canine travel around visiting schools, Children’s Hospital, therapy and psychiatric practices.

Animals Deserve Better, uses the Pet Partners program to test their therapy animals. The intensive training can take anywhere between six to eight months. The main thing that sets Paws for Life apart from other organizations is their dedication to provided life-long partnerships with animals and humans.

Peoples and Grizzly share a kiss, as Ashley, an Atlanta Pet Partner volunteer, holds Grizzly. Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal

“We place the puppies or dogs with the disabled client and train them both together as we believe that the bond that forms should be with the disabled person and not the trainer,” Brenowitz said. “We customize our training  for the specific disability, [and] we are with the disabled person and dog for the service dog’s life.”

Service vs. Therapy

While service and therapy canines both provide assistance, there are differences between the duties performed by each dog. Paws for Life provides service dogs to people who desire canine assistance with their everyday lives, and therapy animals for emotional or physical support.

The main distinguishing characteristic between service and therapy dogs is the training. Therapy dogs are trained to provide emotional support, and their focus is to provide psychological or physiological treatment.

“Therapy dogs receive extensive training but have a completely different job,” Brenowitz said. “Their responsibilities are to provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers; who are usually their owners.”

Therapy animals visit schools, businesses, hospices, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities. When working therapy dogs are allowed to socialize, and their greatest strength is providing endless championship.

“Their primary roles are to provide their disabled owners with emotional comfort providing the basic gift of companionship and unconditional affection,” Brenowitz said.

Service dogs go through intensive training to help them detect when their handler has a medical emergency. A diabetic alert dog, trained by Paws for Life, detects changes in blood sugar levels. Once the proper balance changes the dog then alerts the handler. These dogs assist with autism, medical alerts, PTSD, hearing, seizures and more.

“Working as part of a team with their disabled partners, service dogs help them attain the safety and independence from which their handlers’ disabilities would otherwise limit them,” Brenowitz said. “Service dogs are trained to ignore other people unless they need to ask for assistance for their disabled partner.”

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Other Atlanta Animal Services

Happy Tails Pet Therapy is another animal therapy organization located in Atlanta. Volunteers openly share their pets with others, while visiting people patients in the hospital, and other businesses that requests their services.

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A Georgia State student locks eyes with Cookie, a certified therapy dog. Photo by Jade Johnson | The Signal

Happy Tails animal therapy brings positive energy and fun to the people who are going through tough emotional and physical battles. The therapy is designed to improve cognitive skills, memory, speech and communication, coordination, mental health, and relaxation. Simple activities such as petting or brushing an animal help alleviate stress to relax a patient.

For more information about Happy Tails Pet Therapy visit the organization’s website.

The process of becoming a team:

Therapy animals need to be interactive and comfortable with human touch. According to Atlanta Pet Partners, there are a few things consider before taking the animal therapy evaluation. Here are a few qualifications. The evaluation has a 22-part skills and aptitude test, that gradually increases the stress on the animal. As the animal goes through the evaluation, the pet owner has to show confidence while giving commands.

-Animal should be able to adjust to new environments

-The animal should be friendly around other animals

-At least a year old

-The animal needs vaccination

-Trained and knowledgeable on basic obedience commands.

*Pet owners have to take an intensive workshop before the animal can take therapy evaluations.

*For information about volunteering and therapy animals visit the Atlanta Pet Partners website.

*Additional information about service and therapy dogs are located in the Animals Deserve Better website.

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