Pet therapy does more than break routine

Visits help with psychiatric and therapeutic issues

When a program to evaluate geriatric patients with dementia was established on the behavioral health unit at Wausau (WI) Hospital, one of the problems the organizers had was to find enough therapies for cognitively compromised patients. Research uncovered such activities as reading the newspaper, showing pictures of old appliances, and showing historical pictures of people, places, and events.

These therapies worked quite well, but staff still were hard-pressed to come up with more activities. Then a consultant suggested pet therapy explaining that it worked well with geriatric patients. That’s when staff logged onto the Internet and got information on the Flanders, NJ-based Therapy Dogs International and successfully implemented a pet therapy program, says Chris Zaglifa, MSW, CICSW, CADC, social worker and alcohol and drug counselor with Family Counseling Services in Wausau, WI. Zaglifa is a former employee of Wausau Hospital who helped implement the pet therapy program.

Having owners bring dogs trained to make hospital visits geriatric patients’ rooms triggered long-term memory and proved to be a good reminiscing tool. The elderly would mourn the loss of their pets and jump from that association to the loss of important people in their lives and the loss of their mobility and functioning as they grieved. "I was especially impressed with the communication. People who could barely babble would begin talking, and you could see the joy in their face," says Zaglifa.

After pet therapy proved to be beneficial to geriatric patients, it was implemented on the psychiatric unit, in hospice, and then in rehabilitation as well. While the therapy dog is licensed to bring comfort to patients who are hospitalized and to make them feel better for at least a short while, the dogs can be used as a part of therapy, says Zaglifa. For example, a woman who was blinded as a result of a traumatic brain injury used a visit from one of the dogs to practice identifying things by touch. She would identify the dog’s nose, ear, and tail.

One woman on the psychiatric unit suffered from depression and would not participate in any activities so her psychiatrist asked that a therapy dog visit her. "She played with the dog and began talking about the pets she had in her life," says Zaglifa. The next day, she went for a walk with the dog and when she returned to the unit she went to the day room to watch football.

"Pet therapy reinforces the efforts the hospital makes to meet the needs of the patient. Not just in providing medical and clinical care, but the overall well-being of the patient. I think a therapy dog does that easily, it is a natural fit," says Zaglifa.

When the therapy dogs are scheduled to make a visit at New Mexico Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care System in Albuquerque, the volunteers are given a list of clients submitted by the physical therapist or psychiatrist who works with the patients. Currently, a team of seven volunteers visits the VA four times a month, seeing patients on the spinal cord injury unit and rehabilitation unit during one visit. The volunteers then visit the patients on the restorative care unit and psychiatric unit next time, says Michelle McKenzie, MA, a therapeutic recreation specialist with the VA physical medicine and rehabilitation service and a pet therapy volunteer.

"The visits are scheduled in the evenings and on weekends because the volunteers are more accessible at that time and the patients are in other therapies during the day that would create a conflict," explains McKenzie, who oversees the visits and makes note of the patient’s response. Part of the visit is social, but frequently there is a goal approach. For example, to help one patient who had a stroke, the volunteer was asked to approach from the left side so the patient would look to the left and try to pet the dog with his left hand, thus strengthening his weaker side.

To ensure that the dogs will be well behaved while in the health care facility, they are well trained and certified by a dog therapy group. Dogs are screened to make sure they are in good health and have an up-to-date veterinary record. They are also tested, says Zaglifa.

For example, the dogs are taken into a large room where people are walking around on crutches, with walkers, or in wheel chairs, and the handler will have the dog greet someone using an assistive device. While the dog is being petted, someone will go up behind the dog and drop a metal pan on the floor to see how the dog reacts. Dogs can attend special obedience classes in preparation. Dog handlers have a set of ground rules on how they are to conduct themselves, says Zaglifa. 

Therapy dogs at the VA medical center are not allowed in certain areas, such as sterile areas or where drugs are distributed. Volunteers are trained to read the signage and learn hand-washing techniques because they are going from patient to patient, says McKenzie.

"There are so many different therapeutic values to pet therapy, but for the most part, you are hospitalized for a reason and it is not a good one so this gives patients some relief," says Zaglifa.


For more information about creating a pet therapy program, contact:

  • Michelle McKenzie, MA, Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, New Mexico VA Health Care System, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Service, 1501 San Pedro Dr., S.E., Mailbox 117, Albuquerque, NM 87108. Telephone: (505) 265-1711, ext. 2030. E-mail:
  • Chris Zaglifa, MSW, CICSW, CADC, Social Worker and Alcohol and Drug Counselor, Family Counseling Services, Wausau, WI. Telephone: (715) 842-3346. E-mail:
  • Therapy Dogs International, 88 Bartley Rd., Flanders, NJ 07836. Telephone: (973) 252-9800. E-mail: Web: