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Dogs make therapy go faster

January 20th, 2003, 02:27 PM
Dogs make therapy go faster
By Shari Chaney
Times-News writer


BURLEY -- Therapy is hard work unless there's a dog in the room.

Six-year-old Greyson Garner is a speech and occupational therapy patient at Cassia Regional Medical Center, where a new pet therapy program is in place.

Sometimes Garner doesn't want to practice saying sounds or snapping and zipping his jacket. But then Ellie came to visit him during his therapy sessions.

Ellie is a greyhound dog.
After Garner's occupational therapy session Wednesday, therapist Tammy Haugen told him happily, "That's the best work I've ever gotten out of you."

Garner practiced snapping and zipping and wrote words on his white board to proudly show Ellie. There wasn't a moment he wasn't willing to work.

In his speech therapy session, Garner practiced saying "white, black and yellow" -- the colors of Ellie's fur. He tells Ellie other words he's been working on -- curling his tongue around the word "safe."

The first therapy sessions using a pet at Cassia Regional were deemed a success by everyone -- dog, handler, therapist, and most of all, Garner.

Cassia Regional is beginning a pet therapy program working through Intermountain Therapy Animals and the Delta Society, said Geri Alejandro, public relations spokeswoman at the hospital. Animals will work in the speech and occupational therapy departments for now. Visits to other parts of the hospital may occur as more people become involved.

There are many instances when an animal might be useful in therapy, hospital officials agree. Alejandro noted a therapy session when a child would not come out from under a chair.

"An animal in the room might draw a child out," Alejandro said.

A pet might get patients talking, said speech therapist Susie Anderson. It's more fun than just looking at cards with the therapist.

In occupational therapy, a dog visit could help with sensory integration or range of motion in petting the dog or extremity function by playing catch, Haugen said.

"Then it's not therapy any more. It's playing with a dog," Haugen said.

The pet therapy program at Cassia is small -- Ellie and her handler Lori Fletcher are the lone participants. Animals must be certified through the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization with the mission of improving human health through service and therapy animals. Handlers must become hospital volunteers.

Several other dog and handler pairs are working to becoming certified, Alejandro said, and anyone interested is encouraged to find out more about becoming certified.

Fletcher didn't set out to have a therapy dog but fell in love with a friend's greyhound who also served as a pet therapy dog. When Fletcher's friend started talking about a pet therapy program, her eyes lit up and Fletcher saw that. Patients in the hospital light up too, her friend said.

Fletcher now sees that reaction from patients when she and Ellie walk down the hall at the hospital or visit with patients at Minidoka Memorial Hospital's long-term extended care facility.

Ellie makes a great pet therapy dog with her love for people and craving for attention, Fletcher said. Those are important elements to be a therapy dog. Greyhounds also have great eye contact which helps create a bond between the dog and the patients.

"The patient really wants the dog to notice them," Fletcher said.

Ellie was born in a "puppy mill," Fletcher said. The first 18 months of her life were spent in a crate, getting out to relieve herself two times a day and running on the track. Either Ellie wasn't fast enough or she decided she didn't want to run after a stuffed rabbit, but Ellie was placed in a greyhound rescue program and eventually into Fletcher's home.

Times-News writer Shari Chaney can be reached at the newspaper's Mini-Cassia Bureau at 677-4042, Ext. 638, or by e-mail at