Interim Healthcare, an organization that provides home healthcare in the Southwest and Central Virginia area, recently added pet therapy to its services with successful results.
Floyd resident Austin Scarborough, 16, was born with Cerebral Palsy (CP), a disorder that affects muscle tone, movement, and motor skills. As a result, Scarborough has been undergoing physical therapy treatment to help with his condition for the past four years with Interim. He’s struggled with his treatments until Interim brought in Sawyer, an 11-month-old female English white lab certified as a pet therapy dog. Now, therapy has become easier and more tolerable for Scarborough, who looks forward to seeing the dog each visit.
“I am able to play fetch with Sawyer, and I enjoy playing with her,” Scarborough says. “I get to throw the ball and she brings it back and it helps me stretch during therapy. Sawyer is so good to me, and is very loving. Sawyer lies on my back when I am stretching and it really helps me relax. I hope to someday have a dog just like her.”
Scarborough’s aunt and guardian, Ruth Anders, has also noticed a difference in her nephew’s demeanor since he began interacting with Sawyer.
“Sawyer makes a big difference in how Austin responds to therapy,” says Anders. “He’s more engaged and cooperative. When Sawyer is here, Austin goes to a happier place. Having her here is something he looks forward to and enjoys. If they could bring Sawyer every day, Austin would be on cloud nine.”
Research shows that pet therapy has several benefits for patients, both physically and mentally. According to PAWS for People, an organization focused on the healing power of pet therapy since 2005, being surrounded by animals can lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, reduce physical pain, lessen depression and anxiety, assist with speech and communication issues, and motivate people to recover faster. While it is mostly dogs that interact with patients, other animals can also be used as part of treatment, including cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, llamas, donkeys, and miniature horses, according to Pet Partners, another national organization that trains animals for therapy purposes.
Sawyer became certified a few months ago through Man’s Best Friend, a dog training organization in Madison, Ohio that trains dogs for protection, obedience, and pet therapy.
“Therapy was intense,” says Cheryl Rakes, a physical therapist and Director of Rehab at Interim Healthcare who also is Sawyer’s handler.
During her schooling, Sawyer was taught how to listen to commands and know what to do when surrounded by patients with varying degrees of physical limitations. She learned how to sit, stay, and heal during a patient’s physical therapy treatment as well as when to pull a wheelchair when necessary. Sawyer has been a part of Interim Healthcare for the past two months. Rakes took in Sawyer as her owner about the same time, and also underwent training with Man’s Best Friend on what to do with Sawyer when she accompanies her on therapy sessions.
“I am a huge dog lover and animal lover in general, and we noticed what pet therapy could do for people, so we decided to add pet therapy to our services,” says Rakes. There is no extra charge for allowing Sawyer to join Rakes on the therapy treatment visits.
In addition to Scarborough, Sawyer has also visited with an elderly patient who needs physical therapy to assist with issues with balance.
“He played fetch with Sawyer and was able to stand for ten minutes,” Rakes says. “Sawyer made him really happy. He had a blast.”
Patients seem calmer and more relaxed when Sawyer is by their side, points out Rakes. She aids patients who may have issues with balance or standing, their gait or with walking as well as wheel-chair mobility. Sawyer is usually beside them during their treatments, and patients do a lot of petting and doting on the dog, forgetting for a bit about the real reason they are there.
“Patient’s attitudes toward therapy changes,” notes Rakes. “Sawyer is a nice distraction and motivates them. Therapy is more fun and the outcome is better when she is around.”
Sawyer visits with 30 to 40 percent of Interim Healthcare’s patients in their homes. She helps pediatric patients with stretching and other exercises and is utilized in physical therapy treatment for those older adults with problems with balance or similar conditions.
“Sawyer just makes people light up and takes them away from what they are dealing with for a little while,” Rakes says.
Since Sawyer is still just a puppy, Rakes attends every therapy session as well to ensure that Sawyer follows commands and everything is going smoothly.
“So far, it’s been great,” Rakes says. “I enjoy it. Adding pet therapy to our services and having Sawyer with us has been a real positive experience.”
Particularly in Scarborough’s case. Rakes visits with Scarborough on a monthly basis for hourly physical therapy sessions, and has recently started bringing Sawyer along. During his treatment, Scarborough will allow Sawyer to lay on top of his back and pet the dog while Rakes helps him stretch his legs and hips.
“Austin’s become more focused and in-tune,” Rakes says. “He’s excited when Sawyer comes and always asks me to bring her back. He just has a brighter look on things when Sawyer is there.”