Pet therapy dogs lifting spirits

Some jobs are just, well, fun.

Like the job of the dogs with the LSU Agriculture Residential College’s Animal Assisted Therapy program.

Their job is to comfort humans who need cheering up, which means being petted, a win-win for the dogs and the humans.

The program, which started in 2009 and is funded mostly through donations, assigns pets, signed up by their owners, to student handlers in the Agriculture Residential College.

The student handlers and pets then move on to training. Once the students and pets are trained, they make regular visits to a chosen site.

This school year, the therapy dogs will target the residents of the Sunrise Assisted Living Center.

Ariel Bergeron, an LSU sophomore studying to be a veterinarian and one of the pet handlers, is in her second year with the program. She says it certainly will not be her last.

Her fondest AAT moment happened this year when she and her Chihuahua partner, Chi Chi, visited a resident for an entire hour. Encounters are normally brief, but this time she really got to know a resident whose face lit up as he pet Chi Chi and shared his story.

“It’s actually making a difference. That’s what made me happy,” she said.

Murphy, another therapy dog in the AAT program, had such a strong bond with a resident that she found the resident’s room without ever having been there before, and waited by the door until her new pal, who was taking a nap, opened it.

“I had no idea how Murphy knew,” said Charity L. Bryan, Murphy’s owner. “It really makes you stop and think about the human-animal bond.”

Bryan has volunteered for the program for the third year with her other dog, Riley.

Renee Bacher, another volunteer who also fosters dogs for Companion Animal Alliance, can attest to this bond after her dog Crespo, a Mastiff mix, spent 20 minutes with a frail elderly woman who declared she was not afraid of him despite his muscular 85-pound frame. “He has a heart of gold and he adores people,” Bacher explained.

Chi Chi, Murphy and Crespo are three of 20 dogs whose human partners number 29 students, an increase from last year, said Betsy Garrison, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and rector of the AAT program.

This year also saw more pet owners volunteering, with 18 attending the first visit on Oct. 19, Garrison said.

One newcomer is Candice Roberson, a retired licensed professional counselor and owner of Skipper, a yellow lab that will be 3 in March. Roberson explained why the program was such a perfect match for her: “I’m into dogs. I’m into counseling. And I’m into people.”

For Roberson, the first visit was interesting and relaxing despite the tension caused by a straw man decoration Skipper had his eyes on when walking through the door. “He turned around and looked at me and said ‘OK, I’ll pass on it this time.’ ”

The therapy dogs practice restraint with their handlers during training with Diane Sylvester, director of the LSU Veterinary School’s Tiger HATS program. Tiger HATS (Human Animal Therapy Services) started in 1991 and is based on Pet Partners, an international pet therapy program.

Sylvester says a therapy animal must be stable and easy to control, which is why the program accepts only animals that have been owned for at least six months rather than animals that come straight from a shelter. “You need to know the dog you’re working with,” she said.

With a clear understanding between handler and animal, pet therapy can help all kinds of people feel healthier, mentally and physically.

Pet therapy helps patients at mental health facilities, stroke victims, children getting their blood drawn and so on.

“There’s a lot of different ways that pet therapy works,” Sylvester said. For example, the therapy pets from Tiger HATS came to the rescue of stressed-out students on LSU’s campus during midterms this year.

Glenda Natale, a psychiatric nurse who signed up her dog Lucky, pointed out how the dogs’ visit made the staff feel better as well. “The dogs just bring such happiness, and we could all use just a little more of that in this world,” she said.

Nobody seems immune to the dogs’ elating power, including the pet owners who watch their pets at work. Lacey Brandt, a first-grade teacher and proud owner of Bella, said as sad as it is to see residents separated from their families, it is rewarding to see them light up when they pet Bella.

Kenissa McKay, who volunteered her 9-year-old border collie Loki, agreed with Brandt. “It is such a rewarding feeling as the pet owner to know your animal is not only providing joy to others but is getting just as much in return,” McKay said.

Bryan, who plans to volunteer Murphy and Riley for the program indefinitely, said she hopes to be on the other end of pet therapy in the future. “Frankly, if I’m ever at Sunrise when I’m 80, you know, I hope somebody will bring a dog for me to pet.”