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Stroke Smart Magazine

January/February 2007

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The Healing Power of Animals

By Lynn Bronikowski

Patience helped Northern California architect Pam Seifert recover from the stroke she survived three years ago at age 53.

Patience is a therapy horse at the Xenophon Therapeutic Riding Center in Orinda, Calif., who literally got Seifert back in the saddle following a stroke.

“I had been riding for 17 years before my stroke and was determined to ride again,” said Seifert. “Within weeks of getting out of the hospital I got back on a horse — with the help of side walkers and someone leading the horse.”

Riding not only provided stretching exercises, particularly on her weakened left side, but also helped her regain balance and build core strength.

“I was trying to figure out how to celebrate the first anniversary of my stroke and thanks to my trainer and others who offered their support I was ready to ride in an exhibition,” said Seifer, who is among a growing number of stroke survivors who believe animal-therapy programs helped their recovery.

“Pet therapy is growing as a recognized therapy,” said Donna Beal, a certified therapeutic recreation therapist at the Drake Center in Cincinnati, which has eight therapy dogs. “I have seen patients seem so depressed, but the dog visits bring them such joy.

“The dog calms them,” said Beal, who has been in the rehab field for 27 years. “The dog can even lower blood pressure. And I can't tell you how many times I've heard patients say, 'This made my day. Now I can go on with my therapy.'”

Dr. Gene Hayes, professor of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Tennessee, takes his companion dog, Lanai, on visits to stroke survivors at the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville.

“There was a woman who had a stroke who was in a wheelchair and totally dependent,” said Hayes. “Yet when Lanai came to visit she was able to scratch the dog behind the ears with her hand and that helps build strength.”

Here are other areas of therapy where 7-year-old Lanai has helped stroke survivors:

Aphasia: Certified pet-therapy dogs are trained to understand dozens of commands. Patients get excited when dogs understand what they are saying and try to speak even more.

Mobility: Patients will take the dog for a walk down a hallway which is a lot more fun than walking up steps or doing other routine therapy to help their mobility.

Recognition & Memory: Hayes will ask patients if they have a dog, which gets them working on their memory as they begin to talk about their own dog or dogs they have known.

Directionality: Patients will reach across to pet the dog.

Animal therapy Resources

Canine Companions for Independence offers programs in which facility dogs are paired with rehabilitation professionals to improve the mental, physical or emotional health of those in their care. Visit www.caninecompanions.org.

Delta Society is an international, non-profit organization that unites people with professionally trained animals to help improve their health. For information, go to www.deltasociety.org.

Therapy Dogs International Inc. is a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registering therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers. Visit www.tdi-dog.org.

The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association has more than 650 program centers across the U.S. and Canada serving some 30,000 individuals with disabilities. Visit www.narha.org.


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National Stroke Association’s mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of stroke by developing compelling education and programs focused on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and support for all impacted by stroke.

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