Therapy dogs help kids make progress

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Therapy dogs help kids make progress

For years we have been told of the health benefits pets bring to their families. In addition to companionship and comfort, pets are cited by the CDC to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, overall stress and increase physical activity. Service animals not only serve as guidance for the blind, but are now also trained to alert others of seizures, stroke and blood sugar levels. They also provide needed support for those with anxiety and autism, among others. 

Hospitals and rehabilitation centers nationwide are bringing the health benefits of dogs straight to their patients through therapy dog programs such as the one at Kootenai Health. Speech therapist Linsey Willoughby and physical therapist Ilka Young are introducing therapy dogs like Huck, a black lab, to their pediatric patients at Kootenai Health Rehabilitation Services to help lower apprehensiveness and motivate patients like 3-year-old Cece Granger. 

“Cece was born with Down syndrome and benefits from outpatient therapy targeting gross motor development and communication,” Willoughby said. “We’re using Huck to help build up her language by encouraging her to direct him and talk about things we’re doing with him.” 

In addition to vocabulary development, Huck is helping Cece progress in physical therapy. She is currently working toward starting preschool in the fall, needing to be able to stand and walk independently. 

“Cece has been walking for about two months with assistance now, but tends to lean forward and fall, so we are working on her posture,” Young said. “Huck is a huge motivating factor for her. Last week she stood up and walked two steps on her own and farther distances with assistance than she has in previous sessions.” 

Cece’s mother, Aimee Fahnstrom-Burley, has been bringing her to rehabilitation since she was an infant. She said she is excited about introducing Huck into Cece’s therapy and hopes he can help. 

“We’ve been working with Linsey and Ilka for most of Cece’s life,” she said. “They understand what gets her excited and motivates her, and incorporate that into their work. Cece loves animals, especially dogs, so to have Huck here is great.” 

Willoughby said she is currently incorporating Huck and another therapy dog, Buddy, into several patients’ therapy routines, three of which are children with autism.

“The goal with the therapy dog program with these children is to increase their engagement and awareness of other living beings, while encouraging appropriate interaction and language use,” Willoughby said. “I am hoping to continue to use and expand the program with many of my pediatric patients. I believe the use of dogs in therapy can help pediatric patients learn vocabulary such as paw, ear, fur, hairy, leash; learn to direct by commanding the dog to sit, stay, shake, fetch; and attend to the needs of another being. With some practice, use of the therapy dog program may enable children with pragmatic delays (difficulty with social skills) to foster friendships by initiating appropriate conversation with others.”

By Andrea Nagel 

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