Blind World Magazine

Healing power of pets.

November 29, 2005.
Louisville Courier-Journal - Louisville,KY,USA.

Robin Williams wanted to die.

"I was tired of living," said Williams, a disabled Louisville hairdresser who has schizophrenia and bipolar disease. "Life had gotten really old back in November last year, and I was really suicidal."

Scheduled to enter a local crisis stabilization unit, Williams was discussing the decision with a social worker at Bridgehaven, the day-treatment facility he visits regularly, when Tyler, one of the center's therapy dogs, came over.

"She sat in my lap and started whining," Williams said. "She just really knew that things weren't right with me, and it really made me cry. I couldn't stop petting her, and afterward, I felt a lot better."

Williams said he still went to the crisis unit and stayed three weeks. But he said he missed the mixed-breed pooch while he was there.

"The first thing I did when I got back to Bridgehaven was go see Tyler, because of the love she showed me. Tyler was the first true friend that I had down there. She accepted me the way I was and is always there for me when I need a friend, or need someone to pet on and love on."

Part of the team.

Tyler, who resembles a bearded collie, has been giving unconditional love and emotional support to Bridgehaven clients for 15 years, since she was a pup, and as part of the center's four-member pet unit.

There are also two 7-year-old housecats, Caesar and Cleo, and a 14-month-old "goldendoodle," Scout.

The animals are crucial to the Bridgehaven mission of community-based psychiatric rehabilitation and recovery.

"Members feed the animals, brush them, play with them, take them out, and it helps replicate a sense of normalcy," said Arti Ortega, a licensed clinical social worker at Bridgehaven.

The pets are part of what is called "work order day," where clients take part in work activities that help them gain a sense of accomplishment and regain skills they lost when their illness hit.

Ortega said some people attend who might not otherwise come unless there was something meaningful to them, like the pet unit.

"I think it also helps teach members about aging, responsible pet care and the stages of grief, realizing that our time with her (Tyler) is limited."

Slowing down.

At 15 -- that's 86 in human years -- Tyler has slowed her pace and wrestles with arthritis and kidney problems. But she works every day and is clearly the queen of the pet unit.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know what I'd do without her," said Christine Pruitt, a disabled chef who has bipolar disorder. Like Williams, she credits Tyler with helping her through a suicidal crisis.

"Knowing I had the responsibility of feeding her and taking care of her gave me the initiative to come back to Bridgehaven."

Pruitt also sang Scout's praises, saying the younger dog had helped her too.

"We're like buddies. We go to the park, play in the fountains. We run together. Both these dogs just mean the world to me. But right now, Tyler holds a more special place in my heart. She's older, and I worry about her sometimes."

Sometimes, Pruitt said, she "baby-sits" Tyler when Ortega goes to meetings. "I put music on and we lie there and fall asleep together."

Pets and healing.

Animals, mainly dogs, have been helping sick people for centuries -- rescuing the injured, leading the blind and comforting the bereaved.

More recently, pet therapy has helped in counseling victims of Hurricane Katrina.

In the late 1990s, their use in remarkable new therapies attracted scientific research. Studies showed how dolphins were helping mentally retarded children respond better verbally; how a cockatiel helped a tantrum-prone youngster born addicted to crack calm down and pay attention in school; how dogs significantly reduced anxiety in patients with depression, schizophrenia and other disorders.

A 1995 study in the American Journal of Cardiology found that heart-attack patients lived longer if there was a dog in the house.

Dogs have assisted at Kosair Children's Hospital, Home of the Innocents, the Southern Indiana Rehab Hospital in New Albany and other local facilities.

Tyler and her animal colleagues helped Bridgehaven win a Reintegration Award, a national Eli Lilly Co. honor for groups and individuals that improve services for the mentally ill and help reduce public stigma of the disorders they suffer.

"We are so excited about this that we are beside ourselves," wrote Bridgehaven development director Donna Schuster in an e-mail. "And the pet unit, which Tyler is a part of, was essential. They serve a huge purpose and focus as members of our treatment team."

'She chose me.'

Tyler came to Bridgehaven in 1990, long before animal therapy had been scientifically validated, and the healing power of pets was not widely known.

But after one client asked for a pet, thinking that would make her feel better, Ortega found herself outside on a cold November night that year, looking for puppies underneath a house identified by the Animal Rescue League.

There, she found Tyler.

"There were about five puppies, and I crawled underneath the house and pulled her out," Ortega said. "Actually she chose me. I was down on my belly, and she walked over and starting licking my face."

The dog had the perfect disposition for a therapy pet -- she didn't jump up on people, growl or bark, and wasn't intimidated by wheelchairs and walkers.

Animals helping severely ill and disabled patients usually undergo careful training by such groups as Delta Society, a Washington-based organization helping to unite ailing and hospitalized humans with trained service animals, and the Florida-based Therapy Dogs International, which provides certified dogs and their handlers for visiting healthcare facilities.

They're trained for obedience, self-control, empathy and a good work ethic, qualities that enable them to provide unconditional love and rapt attention to people isolated emotionally by grief or illness.

In 1996, Tyler narrowly flunked a certification test by Therapy Dogs Inc., a nonprofit group that registers canines after a detailed screening process.

And though she hasn't sought official certification since, Tyler is a natural, Ortega said.

4-legged motivation.

Molly Clouse, a former Bridgehaven member who is bipolar, said that the affection Tyler showed her persuaded her to get her own dog, an English springer spaniel named Abby, now 6.

"I credit Abby with saving my life," said Clouse, now a mental-health consultant working in Frankfort, Ky., "because she got me out of bed when I didn't want to get out of bed. She gave me the reason to live."

Walking and caring for Abby meant that Clouse had to get up and out.

"I got exercise, which helps people get over depression. I got outside, which gave me full spectrum light, which also helps fight depression. It helped turn my whole life around, and I was totally unconscious of what was happening to me -- and it all started with Tyler.

"At Bridgehaven, she would come over and stand by me, sometimes sit next to my chair, and it made me feel sort of special. She was saying, 'It's OK to have a dog, because we're good for you.' "

TO LEARN MORE The Delta Society is a Washington-based organization that helps unite ailing and hospitalized humans with trained service animals. The Florida-based Therapy Dogs International provides certified dogs and their handlers for visits to healthcare facilities.

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