Here’s how dog therapy is helping people in Arizona

Lifestyle | 8 Apr |

Man’s best friend could be promoted from friend status to your personal therapist as dog therapy is helping people in more ways than one.

According to National Geographic, the U.S. has more than 50,000 therapy dogs.

Mary Lou Jennings is the Animal Assisted Therapy Program Coordinator at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. This program called Paws Can Heal brings therapy animals to the hospital to help patients through motivation, anxiety reduction and pain distraction.


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“Our purpose is really to try and make their hospital room more like their home bedroom,” Jennings said. “The idea is that we provide some normalization of their environment. If they have a dog at home, the dog would be in their room, the dog would be up on their bed, the dog would be hanging out with them.”

Jennings said that therapy dogs also have such an emotional impact on patients that doctors wait to walk in until after the therapy dog visit. A therapy dog who works a two-hour shift sees about eight to 15 kids a day and about 10,000 to 14,000 patients a year.

“The patient’s mood is elevated, the family’s mood is elevated and it’s something that lasts overtime,” Jennings said. “It just doesn’t take place for the five or 10 minutes that we’re in the room, but it continues over the next two to three hours and that has an effect on their ability to participate in anything else that may happen for the rest of the day.”

Paws Can Heal has a budget of about $90,000 to $100,000 a year and is fully funded through donations and volunteers. Jennings said that they have around 75 volunteers and 50 dogs.

HABRI, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, did a survey in 2016 and found that 54% of pet owners noticed physical health improvements and 74% of pet owners noticed mental health improvements.

Therapy dogs don’t just help those with medical needs, but they can help anyone, even college students.

Sharon Martin started Sun Devil Paws Therapy in 2015. Martin and her friend took their certified therapy dogs to the memorial union at ASU’s Tempe campus and once they started building more connections, people began calling them for events.

“We’ve got freshman that have never been out of their state or been out of their parents’ house and they miss their animals,” Martin said. “The dogs are normal; the dogs are something that’s been part of their life and they miss them terribly.”

Sun Devil Paws Therapy is a non-profit organization that doesn’t charge for their services, but they do ask clubs to cover parking expenses. They are on campus about eight to 10 times a semester which can add up to about $90 for parking depending on how many dogs attend an event. Martin said that they have about 20 teams on call and about 12 of them that work consistently.

“It can even be the second week of school and we’ve got kids saying, ‘I miss my dog so badly,’” Martin said. “It just makes a huge difference. It doesn’t matter where you are, if you see a cute dog you’re going to get down and pet it.”

COVID-19 restrictions forced Sun Devil Paws Therapy to stay home but Martin said that they made it work. All of the dogs learned how to Zoom and look at the camera. She said that they are attending more events now but are still remaining COVID safe. Everyone who pets a dog must wear a mask and use hand sanitizer beforehand.

“My favorite thing is to watch all these people be in their own world and they see the dog and their face lights up and they’re smiling,” Martin said. “It used to be so fun to watch the expression on their faces and now we see their masks so I can’t wait until we go back to seeing those happy faces.”

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