Therapy has gone to the dogs. And cats, rabbits and occasionally monkeys; although therapy monkeys are illegal in Colorado.
"That's because they can't be house-trained," says Sandy Sekeres, founder and director of the Rifle-based Paws to Love and Paws to Read animal-assisted therapy programs.
Sekeres has owned and trained therapy dogs since the 1980s. She takes them into hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living centers to comfort patients, and into libraries and schools to help kids read. Sekeres wanted to work with a therapy monkey several years ago, but the state law was a good deterrent.
She says the difference between a therapy animal and a service animal is that, first and foremost, a service animal is not considered a pet; it's a tool. "Just like a wheelchair," she said.
Service animals have the right, granted them by the American Disabilities Act, to go into public places. "They can go wherever humans can go."
Therapy animals, on the other hand, are pets, not tools. They're comfort animals and must be invited into a facility. "Therapy dogs get rewarded for being petted," said Sekeres with a smile. "Service dogs get rewarded for not being petted."
Service dogs are on duty when they're out in public and must not be disturbed. "It's like trying to do your work and someone is always tapping on your shoulder. It's a distraction," she said.
But therapy animals live for loving pats on the back, scratches behind the ears and belly rubs. And it's not only the animal that reaps the benefits. According to California-based Love on a Leash, a national therapy animal certification and training organization, "A therapy pet's primary function is to brighten someone's day."
Research indicates that animal-assisted therapy helps humans heal - from both emotional and physical trauma. The animals' presence can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and often remove emotional barriers to productive behavior. For hospital or nursing home patients, a visit with a therapy dog allows them to give and receive affection.
Sekeres said with the Paws to Read program kids gain confidence by reading to her golden retriever, Rifle. There is no peer pressure or advice from the teacher, just a dog who listens. "The dog is not judgmental," she said.
Anyone who has a furred or feathered friend knows the joy of animal companionship. In the U.S., that's 62 percent of households, according to the American Pet Products Association's 2011-2012 Pet Ownership Survey, or close to 73 million homes.
But Sekeres, who owns three dogs, said it takes a special kind of animal to help youngsters in school, work with troubled youth or provide calm in a crisis situation. "The animal has to love people and get along with other animals," she explained. "No Cujos need apply," she added, referring to the rabid St. Bernard from a Stephen King novel.
The animal also has to be able to respond to basic obedience commands. When Rifle goes into hospitals or nursing homes, for example, he cannot bound into the room, sniff around and then jump up on the patient's bed. "The dog is always on a leash," Sekeres said. "He'll walk up to the edge of the bed and wait to be petted."
The same goes for Paws to Read. A therapy dog must be able to relax around children. "Rifle can't run up and lick the child's face," Sekeres said. At the schools, Rifle usually sits or lies down between two kids who take turns reading to the dog. "One child pets; the other reads," she said. "Then, they switch."
Sekeres told stories about how Rifle has helped people during hospital visits and explained that therapy animals are often trained for crisis response. "They were used after 9/11," she said.
And they're still used in Newtown, Conn., said Bill Kueser, vice president of marketing for Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society), an international service and animal-assisted research and training organization. "Crisis response animals were the first on the ground after [the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings] last year," he explained.
Local facilities requested the animals to help ease the trauma. "They're not search and rescue dogs," he said. "They work with people to provide a moment of escape, release or emotional comfort."
National animal-assisted crisis response teams were the first to arrive. "After they left, the local Pet Partners teams came in," Kueser said. They began working at neighboring schools and communities after Sandy Hook Elementary School was closed and, Kueser said, they're still there. "People interact with the dogs," he said. "They're able to talk about the trauma for the first time or just have a safe interaction."
Sekeres will offer classes in June and August for people who want to get involved with therapy animals. She loves the animals and the work. But she doesn't try to analyze what it is about the dogs that works. "It's magic," she said. "Who knows what the dogs do."