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'Therapy' pets with handlers bring joy to vets and patients

Keith Jones and Colt
Ruth Safranek and Trev

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

Ruth Safranek, a long-time dog owner who has visited the Spokane Veterans Home for nearly 15 years, confirms that when she enters a room and her dog is with her, the eyes of the person she is visiting brighten immediately and their smile gets bigger.

Ruth's experience attests to statistics about the value for people of interacting with pets.

People who have dogs and cats believe that life is better with their companionship, finding that dogs offer unconditional love, devoted companionship and constant entertainment.

Statistics show that the many people in Washington and Idaho who have dogs or cats as part of their households support this contention.

According to a survey by the American Medical Veterinary Association, 62.7 percent of households in Washington State and 69.9 percent in Idaho have some kind of animal as a pet.

Overall, dogs predominate as the household pet of choice, with approximately 40 percent of U.S. households owning a dog, while only about 25 percent have a cat, the next most common pet.

According to the American Kennel Club, scientific studies have identified 10 benefits of having a dog: 1) Dogs make one feel less alone. 2) Dogs are good for one's heart. 3) Dogs help reduce stress. 4) Dogs can assist in times of crisis. 5) Dogs encourage physical activity. 6) Dogs enhance attractiveness. 7) Dogs promote socialization. 8) Dogs have an irresistible charm. 9) Dogs increase happiness. 10) Dogs can positively affect seniors, including those suffering from dementia.

Cats offer similar benefits in their interaction with humans.

Petting cats, like petting dogs, reduces stress, and studies show that interaction with cats helps people with autism to socialize. Having a cat can contribute to a healthier heart, help stave off depression and improve the physical activity of their owners.

With these benefits from a person's relationship with a dog or a cat, the American Kennel Club affirms that it makes sense to bring these animals into situations to interact with people who love them and can benefit from their support.

This is what a pet therapy program—more properly called an animal-assisted intervention program because no professional therapist is part of the interaction—offers, where animals with certain temperaments receive training to provide comfort to individuals in difficult situations.

Therapy animals accompany their handlers to volunteer in potentially stressful settings, such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

In schools, they may accompany a child who is learning to read. In hospitals, they visit with patients and staff, both benefiting from interaction with the animal. In nursing homes, assisted living or rehabilitation centers, they visit seniors.

Regardless, therapy animals and their handlers work together as a team to bring moments of joy to people's lives.

What does it take to have a therapy animal team help those who, like the animal's owners, can benefit from interacting with a therapy animal?

Spokane has all four of the elements needed for a therapy animal program.

First, it has dogs and cats with owners who desire to share their presence with those who can benefit from them but are unable to have their own dog or cat or cannot have the animal with them at the time.

Ruth Safranek, a long-time resident of Spokane Valley, has been part of therapy dog teams for about 15 years. Her pet therapy experiences were with two different dogs at different times, both Spinone Italianos, a fairly large breed described as sociable, docile and patient, sometimes stubborn but always endearing.

However, any breed or mix of breeds can be trained to be a therapy dog if it has qualities like gentleness, patience, sociability and responsiveness to commands.

Ruth's dogs, Vinnie and Trev, had different personalities, but both were friendly around people.

"Vinnie was gentle and patient. If people wanted to pet him, he was willing to stand there and be petted. If they didn't, that was okay, too. A pet therapy dog must be friendly, but he doesn't have to be the most outgoing dog. He can be quieter," she said.

"Trev was more outgoing. He was glad to be petted. He loved deep petting, and he tended to lean into people to be petted. If the person was standing or unsteady on their feet, I had to be careful that he didn't knock them down," Ruth continued.

A second requirement is a training program, concluding with an evaluation to ensure that both dogs and handlers know and can meet the requirements for visiting people.

In Spokane, Pet Partners ( has an active program.

In the Tri-Cities and Yakima areas, Love on a Leash provides a program (

A third requirement is to have evaluators who can assess the skills of the teams to ensure they have the skills and aptitude for visiting.

For 22 years, Debbie Wing has worked with others to evaluate potential pet therapy teams in the Spokane area. She started in this service when she was working as a recreational therapist at Eastern State Hospital and suffered a severe assault from one of the patients. While on medical leave, she realized that her own dogs offered her so much comfort that she wanted to be able to share this with others.

She shares an experience to show how profound the connections can be.

"While I was working at Eastern, I was in the geriatric ward, and there was an elderly woman patient who would just sit slumped over in her wheelchair with her head in her lap, never responding—just sitting there slumped over," Debbie described.  "When the nurses fed her, they would have to prop her up, feed her and, as soon as they let go, she would slump down again with her head in her lap.

"One day I approached her with my therapy cat, and this woman came alive. She sat up and exclaimed, 'Rascal, where have you been? I have been looking all over for you…' and she carried on a delighted conversation with Rascal.

"Finally, I said to her, 'Rascal is hungry now, and I need to take him to get some food and water. Is that okay?'

She agreed, and as soon as I left with my cat, she slumped back down in the chair again with her head in her lap," Debbie related.

Relationships between people and their animals go deep, as the studies cited above attest.

Finally, a fourth requirement is to have community partners who want pet therapy teams to come and visit.

In the Spokane area, there are many such partners.

One of them is Deaconess Hospital, whose Director of Volunteer Services, Jennifer Tucker, describes the value of these visits as she has experienced it.

"A visit from a therapy dog can mean a lot, especially for those who are away from their own animals while in the hospital. It is so fun to see people's faces light up when our pet therapy dogs walk the halls of the hospital. They bring a few minutes of joy to visitors, patients and staff alike," she said.

At another community partner, Spokane's Veterans Home, where Ruth visited with each of her dogs over many years, she comments on the joy that she would see when they would come in the room.

"So often the conversation would begin with, 'When I was young, I used to have a dog named…' or 'my dog… is at home, but I can't have him here,' and then they would enjoy telling happy memories with that dog," Ruth said.

According to Pet Partners, visiting with a pet can deepen the connection the visitor has with the people they are visiting and with the staff there too.

Pet owners and handlers can share the joy their pets bring them with people in need and have an impact on lives in the community.

For information, visit or for a class in pet therapy skills, see

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May 2024