Tonawanda News

October 6, 2013

CRITTER COMPANIONS: Pets beneficial for seniors, too

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The benefits of sharing a life with a critter companion are far reaching. For those healthy enough to care for a pet, the paybacks range from physical to emotional health. Those in senior continuing care, hospitals or assisted living facilities can still reap the benefits of the human-animal bond without caring for a pet.

The notion of animal-assisted therapy may have been around since humans first started caring for animals. Early hunter and gatherers believed that animals had supernatural strength and their spirits had healing powers. 

In the 18th century one of the first animal-assisted therapy sessions was led by William Tuke at the York Retreat in England for the mentally ill. The therapy animals were various species of domesticated animals that roamed the grounds of the retreat with the patients. The retreat thought the animals allowed the patients to communicate more effectively.

Today a range of animals are visiting various facilities and offering comfort, learning and entertainment. It is even happening in Western New York.

A few years ago Dr. Sandy Marky, a local veterinarian, had a vision of an organization that would help educate people about the value of therapy animals. With the help of her initiative within the Niagara Frontier Veterinary Society the Therapy Animals of Western New York began.

Pam Rose, one of the founding members, who successfully juggles the tasks of designing, maintaining and responding to emails on the TAWNY website also has a therapy dog herself.

“We have quite a few stories about therapy dogs visiting senior continuing care or assisted-living facilities, who have residents who just will not interact much — they stay in their rooms most of the time,” she said. “Once a therapy dog visits, again and again we see those individuals blossom, come out to interact with the dogs, and almost magically become more social and less isolated.”

The reason why animal assisted therapy works is simple. Pet caregivers already know that animals are non-judgmental offering unconditional love.

“Such acceptance reduces stress, which leads to a reduction in cortisol, and subsequent lowering of blood pressure and increase in serotonin,” Rose said. 

Many clients in animal-assisted therapy sessions have had pets, especially dogs, when they were healthy and living independently. Providing a dog, even for a short time, offers much comfort Rose added.

TAWNY promotes the idea and use of animals, especially dogs, as a vector of therapy. With almost a dozen founding members, each of them participates in different capacities. Some take their therapy dogs on what you would typically think for a working therapy animal: visiting facilities like local hospitals, senior living complexes and nursing homes. Others attend events at universities and colleges like the University at Buffalo’s Stress Relief Week, where massages, free snacks and — you guessed it — therapy dogs are there to reduce stress during final exam week. Oh, to be in college again.

TAWNY does not certify or train animals to work in a therapeutic setting but does maintain a private database of therapy dog teams certified by various organizations. This allows them to match a team when they are contacted by agencies, hospitals, schools and other organizations. TAWNY serves as a central informational resource and membership is free.

“One of our central goals is to provide people with the information they need to understand therapy animals,” Rose said. 

Once that is accomplished the organization can connect them with the resources they need to achieve the goal of getting their own animal trained and certified or have a therapy team visit their location. 

“Any animal who becomes a certified therapy animal must have an innate calm disposition to begin with. We cannot teach that — they must also love to interact with people,” she said.  

Rose added that the knowledge and use of therapy dogs in particular has exploded in the past two years. Emails and calls from more and more organizations requesting therapy dogs, and the presentations that she does with her therapy dog, Sophia has increased each year.  

For more information on TAWNY visit or our Facebook page Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan.