Owning a trained therapy dog goes beyond owning a pet; it’s a commitment
By Christina Stock
Pet owners always knew, there is nothing better against stress than cuddling one’s pet. Pet therapy is a growing trend worldwide, according to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). As a matter of fact, MFMER has today a program called Mayo Clinic Caring Canines program with more than a dozen registered therapy dogs and their handlers visiting various hospital departments. The animal-assisted therapy has been thoroughly researched by modern scientists and medical researchers for more than two decades.
Animal-assisted therapy can significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems:
- Children having dental procedures
- People receiving cancer treatment
- People in long-term care facilities
- People with cardiovascular diseases
- People with dementia
- Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder
- People with anxiety and depression
- Seniors who have no family or friends visiting them in their retirement homes
It’s not only people with health problems who reap the benefits. Family members and friends who sit in on animal visits say they feel better, too.
You might think this “new” therapy is due to modern science, but pet therapy goes back in time — no surprise here — to the ancient Greek who used horses to improve the physical health of people. The same Greek — and later picked up by the Romans — who laid the ethical foundation for the treatment of the ill that doctors still follow today; the Hippocratic Oath, which includes, “First do no harm.” It includes the first principle a physician should obey and that we take for granted today; the principle of medical confidentiality.
Animal therapy is one of the few medical treatments that survived the dark ages. Interestingly enough, in medieval Belgian society, humans and animals were rehabilitated together. It’s likely that interacting with humans provided the animals with a companionship that mirrored what they could offer. In reaction to practices such as this, animal therapy became a hot topic in academia. In the 1800s, Florence Nightingale observed that small pets reduced the levels of anxiety and stress in adult and youth psychiatric patients. This began a wave of informal experiments involving animal interaction with humans to produce a calming effect on patients suffering from anxiety. An Austrian Nobel laureate in physiology and a psychologist were so intrigued by the connection between humans and animals that they developed an idea called the Human-Animal Bond. This theory described how humans need interaction with animals and nature to normalize the busyness of daily life. Neurologist and psychologist Sigmund Freud even used his pet pup Jofi (a chow chow) in his practice. He believed his dog could tell the truest character in a human. The dog would remain close to patients who were free from tension and stress, and remain on the other side of the room from those who were not. Freud also used his dog to calm young patients with anxiety.
Today, pet therapy is also being used in non-medical settings, such as schools, universities and community programs, to help people deal with anxiety and stress. Out of this came the Chaves County Courthouse CASA dogs, who help children at court testify in cases of horrendous crime and heartache. The dogs calm them with their presence.
Then there are the individuals who stepped up to train their pets as therapy dogs, investing time, money and energy to help others.
In Roswell, Marilyn Cozzens is such an owner. When her friend Sarah Brineger had to move away, Cozzens took in her dogs Tango and Jetta.
Asked why she wanted to train the two gentle dogs as therapy dogs, Cozzens said, “I just thought it would be a good thing for them to be involved in, something to do, and I have always enjoyed visiting older people. A dog seems to break the ice better than anything. Especially people who like dogs and most people do. We encounter sometimes people who had been afraid of dogs. When they got to know either Tango or Jetta, they warmed up to the dogs and greet them. While before they were totally afraid, which is an excellent sign of their gentle nature.”
Cozzens still talks about Tango as if he was with her. The beautiful golden retriever had died earlier this year. Cozzens had her first dog as a young child, since then she said she had several different breeds throughout the years. Cozzens is also a member of the local Rio Pecos Kennel group and was asked in July to be one of the judges at the Alien Pet Contest during the UFO Festival. “That was different,” she said about her experience with “alien” pets and laughed.
Cozzens shared one of her favorite memories while visiting one of the local retirement homes:
“When I was visiting with Tango, this elderly man just sat there and his companion would always greet the dog, but he would just sit there. One day, we were visiting and talking — and normally he would totally ignore the dog — Tango was sitting right by his elbow and all of a sudden he started stroking Tango for five minutes. From then on he would always pet and greet them, either Tango or Jetta. People acknowledge how much the dogs mean to them.”
Asked what it takes to train a therapy dog, Cozzens said, “First, you need to have a dog that has the temperament, because all dogs will not become therapy dogs. They have to have a sweet temperament and be very calm, not overly exuberant. Then, you need to make sure that they are properly trained to pass the evaluation test (in Alamogordo). Then, you need to get out and let the dog really become a therapy dog. So many people I know have passed it, but they don’t visit (hospitals and retirement homes). I think that’s just a waste of time.
“We just continued keeping it up. When we started, we did four visits a week. Each dog did two visits. When Tango passed away, we dropped back to the two, Senior Circle and Casa Maria.
“The only time I have seen Jetta sad was after Tango passed away. She grieved for him for about two-and-a-half months. We didn’t visit much during that time because she wasn’t up to it. That’s the only time I’ve seen her sad, usually, her tail is just wagging so furiously, she’s just so happy and joyful. She’s just a wonderful happy dog,” Cozzens said.
Jetta is soon having a special anniversary. She is only 10 visits away from having done 250 visits. “Jetta’s first visit was on Nov. 7 of ‘15,” Cozzens said. When she achieved 150 visits, she received a certificate from Therapy Dogs International, which reads, “Therapy Dogs International Active Outstanding Volunteer.” At 250, it will read TDI Active Remarkable Volunteer Achievement.
Asked about the times of Jetta’s visits, Cozzens said, “We go to the Senior Circle on Wednesday mornings at 10:30 a.m. and visit there, and then we go to Casa Maria Saturday mornings to visit there. We had the most wonderful visit this past Saturday — that was our first visit after my vacation. As soon as we got there, the nurses were greeting Jetta and were so happy to see her. Then this one nurse came out and she said, we have a new resident and they just love dogs. So we went and they were so excited to see Jetta, and she was just her usual happy, joyful self and they all hugged her. A little boy came over to have his picture taken with her. It was really a fun visit. Then we went down to the therapy room. Another time, we saw a gentleman at Casa Maria who is in a wheelchair and he has an artificial leg. Jetta went up to him and he is petting her and her tail was wagging and wagging. He said, ‘first thing I am going to do when I get out of here is get a dog.’
“It is so rewarding when we touch people’s lives and bring them joy and comfort. That is the whole purpose of visiting there,” Cozzens said.
Cozzens said that she has future goals to help children who struggle in school. “The dog can go to schools and be with children that are not confident in reading,” she said. “They can sit and read to the therapy dog. That builds their confidence because no one is criticizing them; nobody makes fun of them. Mastering reading is a key skill for life, not only school. So I met with the school superintendent, but haven’t heard back yet. Second, third or fourth grade would be ideal,” Cozzens said.
There are also private schools that can reach out to her for more information. “Principals can contact me by phone at 575-627-5871. Just give me a call and we can work out a schedule. Also, my therapy dog has insurance coverage up to $1,000,000. That’s through Therapy Dogs International,” Cozzens said.