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Healing Through Pet Therapy

by Pamela R. Massey, PT, MS, and
Nyla Jacobs, PT, MS

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, July/August 2007.

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While dogs are being trained to detect melanoma, lung cancer, and many other diseases through smell identification, at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, we have discovered another use for man's best friend - animal assisted therapy. Four years ago, the Rehabilitation Services Department developed a pet therapy program that uses dogs to assist therapist in providing occupational and physical therapy to people with cancer. WAGS (Welcoming Animals Giving Support) has become a favorite and successful therapy program for both inpatients and staff.

Twice a month, a special group of volunteers meets in the rehab therapy gym. The volunteers, along with their dogs, have spent countless hours training in order to participate in pet therapy. To carry the title of "pet therapy dog," each dog must pass an extensive temperament test and successfully pass special obedience training.

Introductions begin the first part of the pet therapy session. The laughing and personal bonding between participants, or between participants and dogs, and the act of sharing with the group are therapeutic activities. After the introductions, the participants and dogs are dispersed for therapeutic activities depending on each person's individual needs. Petting, grooming, and leading the dogs in performing tricks can be done in a number of ways or positions to assist the therapist in exercising the participants' different muscles. For example, a person can work on his or her standing endurance and balance while petting the back of a Great Dane.

Pet therapy has done much for our institution. Not only have the participants benefited from the bimonthly visits, but the staff has as well. Each dog and owner brings a unique quality to the sessions. Even though the dogs are very enthusiastic, they appear to be aware they are visiting people with sensitive medical conditions. This is conveyed by the gentleness of each dog and the overwhelming friendliness and kindness each dog shows the participants.

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Pamela Massey is the director of Rehabilitation Services and Nyla Jacobs is a senior physical therapist in the Rehabilitation Services Department at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2007.