Joy Magazine

The Healing Powers of Animals

Barb Hurd lost her husband eleven years ago and her dog Kenai helped Barb work through her grief. "When Michael died, Kenai just knew how much he needed to do to keep me going," she recalls. Kenai demanded love, attention and play, keeping Barb very much in the present and not living in the past.

Barb's strong bond and the healing relationship she had with Kenai is not unusual. Many pet owners report that their companion animals help to reduce stress, blood pressure and anxiety. Now there's a growing community of very special people here in Southern Oregon who team up with their pets to change lives. Known as pet partners or therapy dogs, certified animals and their companion humans bring hope to the lives of those who are unable to have animals because of circumstance, sickness, or disability.

Get Involved with Animals that Heal

Therapy Dogs International, Inc offers a testing and certification program for companion animals and their human partners as well as organizing volunteer visits. Dogs and their humans are tested around medical equipment like walkers, wheelchairs, canes and crutches. Dogs have to be gentle and walk on a loose lead with their owners and they must not be aggressive with other animals. Dogs must be at least one year old before they can test. There is a $10 testing fee and annual medical certification renewal for $35. Contact Sandy Bailey, 245-0840 Animal Evaluator, with Therapy Dogs International Inc.

HOPE Equestrian here in the valley is an opportunity for people to volunteer their time to work with horses and children and adults with physical disabilities. Volunteers help equip horses with braces and special seats, seat riders, and lead horses within a corralled arena. For more information call 541-776-0878 or visit

To find out about becoming a hospice volunteer at the Ashland Community Hospital (ACH) and how to get your pet partner certified, contact Cynthia Meilicke, Coordinator of Bereavement & Volunteer Services at 541-552-9900.

Later this year, ACH will introduce an Animal Assisted Therapy Program as part of its focused patient centered care philosophy. Certified pet partners and their owners will be available to visit patients in the hospital as part of a healing touch initiative, "like being a friendly visitor," says Meilicke.

Therapeutic riding programs such as HOPE Equestrian Center in Medford, pairs kids and adults who have physical and mental disabilities with calm and placid horses. Volunteer-assisted riding improves coordination, balance and confidence. Ashland author Trish Broersma calls the experience transformational and says, "I've seen children who weren't speaking start talking within a few weeks."

Dogs are a big part of life at Avamere at Waterford, a senior community in Medford. In fact dog parties are held after lunch on the third Thursdays of each month. "The dogs are therapy dogs, they're taught to have a lot of attention, a lot of petting, their ears scratched. They don't get anxious or yippy or nippy," explains Josie Wilmoth, life enrichment director. Wilmoth remembers one resident who never smiled, and then, found an animal connection that opened up her life. "It was such a light bulb for me when that animal connected with her, her whole face lit up and then I could reach her on other levels."

Sandy Bailey is the local animal evaluator for Therapy Dogs International, coordinating the volunteer group that brings their dogs to hospitals, nursing homes, schools and senior living communities. It's Bailey's job to make sure that both dogs and their owners have the right temperament for the healing arts. "Some dogs just walk up and they want to say hello to everyone, or they're gentle and they just come up and put their head on your lap," Bailey notes. "It's the temperament of both the person and their dog, together as a team."

Companion animals have a role at the end of life, too. Several hospice centers here in the valley have certified therapy animals to help ease the passing of time and place. LuLu and her human owner Ashley Lenton are volunteers with Ashland Community Hospital's hospice program. LuLu has been accredited by the Delta Society, and Ashley's gone through rigorous training to become a hospice volunteer.

"Oftentimes it's the volunteer who they talk to and tell them what's going on with them," says Cynthia Meilicke with Ashland Community Hospital's Hospice and Palliative Care Service. "If you've ever seen someone talk and pet an animal, you can understand the safety and the intimacy that they can have. It breaks down barriers and allows feelings to surface."

Dogs and other companion animals can help people recover and cope. It's quite simple really. For many who experience loss, illness or loneliness, a pet partner gives unconditional love, hope and healing. "All they want to do is give you love," says Barb Hurd of her dogs Kenai and Sam.

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