Almost any domesticated animal can become a therapy animal. There is even experimental work using dolphins in therapy with disabled children and adults. Among the Delta Society's registered "Pet Partners" are rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, goats, pot-bellied pigs, horses, donkeys, African gray parrots, cockatoos, chickens, and llamas. But dogs are still by far the most common and popular animal therapists.Michele Siegel trains dogs and their handlers to become certified assisted therapy teams. In simulated hospital and patient situations, she screens the dogs for good behavior, skills and temperament.
"There is no one breed...it's the individual. They have to like people, enjoy interacting with people. They have to be able to acclimate to new environments because we visit various facilities," she explains.
Jewel the poodle, a former show dog, is one of Siegel's star pupils. On an average day, Jewel sees three to four patients and demonstrates the same calm and discipline that made her a champion in the ring. Karen Lefrak says proudly of her partner, "She has an amazing temperament...gentle and calm, she hardly barks, she wants very much to please people."
Before becoming volunteer visitors, Kate Fischer and Schnapps also had to be tested and trained. Fischer recalls, Schnapps had to be able "to be hugged, to be squeezed, to be cried into, to be yelled at, to have things dropped on her, to handle crowds, to handle a crowded hallway, loud noises, wheelchairs going by, people bumping into her, people dropping walkers on her."
Handlers are also screened to make sure they can tolerate some of the disturbing scenes they might encounter, from outbursts by mentally ill patients to the sight of gruesome injuries. For Fischer it's all worthwhile when she sees the effect she and Schnapps can have.
"We come and their faces light up. People who are just hurting, and you know they're hurting, and then the dog comes and you can see them forgetting their pain. I'm not sure it lessens the pain—it certainly creates an island from it."
As Michele Siegel puts it, "I hope that if we're doing what we should be doing, and I'm training the people to be going out there doing what they should, that the patients feel love and they feel special, which they are, and that the people that are doing this type of work with their dogs feel just as good about themselves when they leave."
And what about the furry feel-good therapists themselves? If Schnapps is any indicator, they seem to enjoy being able to practice what they do best. "She's bouncing up and down to get here," Fischer says between visits at St. Vincent's Hospital, "She's quiet when she's here, but she adores coming here because she knows she goes into someone's arms and they love, and she gives love back."