News and Opinions about MS, Health & Disability

Therapy animals are more than just dogs

Most people think of dogs when turning their attention to therapy animals, but other domestic creatures are also used. Cats, horses, ‘smallies’ such as rabbits or guinea pigs, reptiles, and birds have all been used successfully.

People with illnesses such as MS, Alzheimer’s, and autism, plus conditions such as PTSD, have all benefited from animal therapy.

I grew up surrounded by dogs as my mother bred corgis. She was an avid dog show exhibitor and international judge. Over the years, I became aware of the good that could result from a dog’s closeness. Yes, companionship, but so much more.

Since then, I have had dogs of virtually all shapes and sizes, from a small Jack Russell Terrier, to a large Welsh Sheepdog. All have been friendly and loving – with the amazing ability to make you feel better when you are down.

These days, Lisa and I have cats as pets.

Therapy animals’ meaningful bond

therapy animals

Brothers and Pet Partners’ co-founders Michael and Bill McCulloch (Pic: Pet Partners).

Pet Partners co-founder Michael J McCulloch, MD, says, “We believe that the human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial relationship that improves the physical, social, and emotional lives of those we serve. We are motivated by connection, compassion, and a commitment to sharing this meaningful bond with everyone who can benefit from time spent with an animal.

“In an age of research when it is tempting to reduce emotions to biochemical reactions and to rely heavily on the technology of medicine, it is refreshing to find that a person’s health and well-being may be improved by prescribing contact with other living things.”

Cats are used for therapy, particularly for anyone who is afraid of dogs. The problem with cats as therapy animals is that they have a significant independent streak and cannot really be trained. At least, not easily.

You may see them at large in nursing homes and the like as they move from room to room, visiting the patients, and sometimes snuggling up to be petted or curling up for a nap. In one well-known case, a Maine Coon cat helped a girl with autism to speak once more.

Pooka – our live-in therapy

therapy animals

Our beloved, gentle, Maine Coon. Pooka, April 1998 – October 2017. Sadly missed.

Actually, talking of Maine Coons is difficult at the moment because our Pooka has just died. Lisa gave her a home when the kitten was six months old and she lived a long and happy life. Pooka was an ‘old lady’ of 19½ when she died.

Pooka was born in Florida, USA’s ‘Sunshine State’, in spring 1998, and moved to the less than sunny UK in 2012. She moved again, this time to live in the sun of southern Spain, in late 2015. In all that time, she was good natured, loving, and a pleasure to have as a companion. She died in her sleep with us nearby. Lisa and I both miss her.

She is survived by Prissy, a fellow Floridian, who is now 11 years old. But their characters are very different. Where Pooka was almost always slow, Prissy is more active. She even occasionally catches prey, much to our disgust. But she is equally as good natured and loves to sleep on our bed.

Proven health benefits of therapy animals

Wide Open Pets says: “We know how our pets help us get through life. Whether trained or not, owning and caring for pets provides a certain amount of therapy and proven health benefits.

“Most therapy animals are used for similar reasons. In hospitals they provide comfort, cheer, and companionship. Service animals take specific and necessary actions in the event of a medical emergency, or in counseling to provide comfort and relaxation.

“Animals can help children with learning disabilities as well as with anger management, mental health, and behavioral difficulties. There are even programs in place that use dogs to help children learn how to read.

“Animals are also commonly used in physical therapy to help with fine motor skills. Actions such as brushing, fastening a collar, and walking are where pet therapy can help,” it says.

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* * * * * is the personal website of Ian Franks, a freelance medical writer and editor for various health information sites. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a wheelchair and advocates on mobility and accessibility issues.


Search and Rescue dogs have key role worldwide

911 dog

There seems to be a sizeable portion of the readers of this blog who take more than a passing interest in the lifesaving activities of mountain rescue teams and another group of people who love to read about dogs and other animals.

Well, today’s blog should satisfy them all as it is all about search and rescue dogs.

These are known throughout the world for their work in finding missing people or those buried by masses of avalanche snow or rubble from collapsed buildings. They always seem to be at the heart of post-earthquake searches and were an important part of the search operation at Ground Zero, in the wake of the 9/11 Twin Towers disaster in New York.

This year, 13 years after that terrible time, golden retriever Bretagne, the last surviving rescue dog who searched Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, revisited the scene.

In September, aged nearly 16 and enjoying her retirement, Bretagne returned to the Manhattan site for the first time since 2001, accompanied by Denise Corliss, her longtime handler and owner. They live now, as then, in Texas.

Nearer to my home, if a search dog is needed then police or rescue teams call upon the services of members and dogs of SARDA, the Search and Rescue Dogs Association.

helencluanieSARDA Wales is a specialist Search Dog component of Mountain Rescue (England and Wales) and are permanently staffed by unpaid volunteer dog handlers and their dogs to provide a search and rescue service to the Police, Mountain Rescue & Coastguard.

Dogs are trained in specialist skills including air scenting and trailing dogs to search for missing people in mountain, rural and urban locations. The association has 80-90 call outs each year in North Wales including missing children, vulnerable adults, dementia patients as well as hill walkers and mountaineers. Handlers and dogs are on call 365 days per year in any weather.

There is no doubt that handlers love their dogs and are united by a willingness to go out in any weather at any time of day to search for missing people anywhere in North Wales and occasionally beyond. Many SARDA Wales handlers are also members of Mountain Rescue teams. The three nearest me, Llanberis, Ogwen Valley and Aberglaslyn teams, have SARDA handlers and dogs in their organisations.

It takes many hours of commitment to train a search dog and it’s a continual process throughout each dog’s working career with the dogs and handlers regularly being assessed to ensure that they maintain the higantmossh standards for which they have come to be well-known.

Every mountain dog handler is an accomplished climber and mountaineer in their own right in summer and winter conditions, as well as being a member of a Mountain Rescue Team. Mountain dog teams are assessed at lowland standard first and then go on to be assessed at mountain level. Skills include avalanche searches and every handler is equipped to be self-sufficient in all weathers and conditions. Handlers play key roles in their own rescue teams as well as being available as a dog team to every other rescue team in North Wales.

All SARDA air scenting dog teams train as lowland search teams. They are trained and assessed to cover open areas, buildings, woodland, sand dunes and caravan parks and this type of work forms the majority of call outs. Lowland areas can be extremely complex to search and require a great deal of skill from both dog and handler. There are often many distractions and the dog will often be working out of sight in complex ground.

The trailing dogs can follow a scent of a specific person from the point that they were last seen. They can work in almost any area from urban to mountain and are trained to ignore other scents to find only the person for whom they are looking.

Running SARDA and its training and assessment operations is not cheap. As I have said, they are all volunteers, all unpaid, and they rely entirely on donations to fund the association.

salspinTo give you an idea of the costs involved, here is a summary of its main expenditure items: Assessment Weekend – Cost £2000; Training Weekend with accommodation and catering – £750; Equip a new dog team – £2000; Search Managers Lap Top with software – £1000; Re-equip an existing dog team with new waterproofs – £500; Cover a dog teams motor expenses for a year – £300; and cover a search dogs annual pet insurance – £300.

In total, SARDA Wales’s annual running costs average about £20,000 and its only income is from public donations.

If you’d like to make a donation, you can do so online by following this link or use your mobile phone (cellphone)  to text SDOG01 £5 to 70070 to donate (of course, you can change the amount)

Practical support is also welcome. Volunteers are needed as ‘Dogsbodies’ and to help with catering at training/assessment weekends.

Dogsbodies are vital as without bodies to find the dogs cannot train. Volunteer Dogsbodies will get a friendly welcome, free food and accommodation in North Wales for the weekend and join the team as a valued member.

Some important qualities are: You must like dogs and be happy to get wet and slobbered on! Must have a sense of humour and be prepared to hide in obscure places in all weathers. Lastly, you must be happy to take instructions.

Anyone interested should email for further details.


Pictures, from top:

Bretagne, 9/11 search dog, now retired

Helen with Cluanie, Llanberis MRT

Antony with Moss, Aberglaslyn MRT

Sally with Spin, Ogwen Valley MRT

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