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Ask any Senior... How is a Dog like a Light Bulb?
By Joanna R. Leefer, MBA, GSC
Most pet lovers already know the answer. He lights up the room
with his love. Senior care facilities think this way
as well. Many nursing homes, assisted living
residences, and senior centers offer visiting pet
programs that allow residents to interact with
animals. The results often turn into a love fest!
Vivian Stadel, a geriatric care manager and Brooklyn
resident, has participated in the pet therapy
program since 2008. Every month, she and her therapy
dog, Einstein, visit the Norwegian Christian Nursing
Home and Health Center in Brooklyn. For every
visit, Einstein arrives in his official therapy vest
and starts his tour of duty. First, he visits the
administratorís office, then each of the three
resident floors, stopping in every room for a short
personal visit. The tour concludes in the
activity lounge where he says his final farewell to
Ms. Stadel tells heartwarming stories of residents
putting out their arms to welcome Einstein as he
runs to greet them with licks, tail wags and the
mutual gazes into each otherís eyes. Vivian
admits that these visits benefit all involved. The
residents are invigorated, Einstein loves all the
attention, the staff is happy, and Vivian forgets
all the daily worries such as bills, household and
Tears come to her eyes as she remembers Einsteinís
interaction with one of his favorite residents. As
soon as Einstein sees the wheelchair bound
gentleman, he races over and positions himself right
next to his wheelchair for a hardy back scratch.
Many other Brooklyn Senior Facilities have similar
programs. The Prospect Park Residence at One
Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, NY, has a visiting
dog program through the Good Dog Foundation.
Every week, a therapy dog visits the Essentia floor,
a floor reserved for residents with special needs.
Menorah Nursing Home in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn has
a visiting dog, Shadow, and Sunrise Senior Living at
Sheepshead Bay has a pet dog in residence.
Nursing homes were one of the first settings to
graciously open their doors to the concept of pet
visits. Therapy Dogs International (TDI), a New
Jersey founded organization, introduced one of the
first visiting pet programs nearly 30 years ago.
Such programs have been expanded to other facilities
including hospitals, psychiatric wards and schools
for autistic children.
The beneficial impact of pets and people has been
documented for centuries. There is substantial
evidence that the relationship between pets and
people extends beyond simple companionship. The
interaction can be physical, emotional and mental.
An animal does not judge a person on his looks or
disabilities, but responds totally to the
Visiting pets often get seniors to move more than
they normally would, which increases their mobility.
Other studies document that stress levels and blood
pressure are reduced after playing with a pet.
This proves true when a visiting pet walks into a
room full of seniors. Many senior homes,
hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living
residents offer therapy dog programs to allow their
inhabitants to share the joy of visiting with a pet.
It often sparks memories and starts conversations
about their own pets and stories from their earlier
The visiting pet program is not limited to dogs.
It can include cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, parrots,
domesticated rats and in some parts of the country,
llamas, horses, goats, donkeys, pigs and chickens.
Nancy George-Michalson, Therapy Animal Program
Coordinator for Pet Partners, a nation-wide animal
organization, mentioned that in New Jersey they have
a potbelly pig named Sherman registered in the
program. Sherman carries a basket balanced on
his nose as he makes the rounds. Now, that brings a
lot of smiles!
Not every animal is eligible for the visiting pet
program. First, they must have the proper
temperament. They must be friendly and
patient, respond to commands, and not be distracted
by loud noises. The pet must have acurrent rabies
vaccination and license, and must be free of ticks
The handler must also go through extensive training.
They must follow a certain protocol, be courteous,
and respect the privacy of patients. The final
exam can often include simulating a chaotic
environment similar to one that might occur in a
nursing home. Both the pet and the handler are
tested. The participants must enter into a
room, ignore the stimulus, and remain calm.
They are to ignore any other pet that is in the
room. Only calm animals and handlers will receive
If you are interested in becoming certified and
providing pet therapy in a facility near you, there
are several agencies that offer training a
credentialing throughout the United States and
Canada. Each program has slightly different
certification requirements. For instance, Pet
Partners (formerly called the Delta Society)
requires recertification every two years.
To get a pet therapy program started in your
facility, check the Yellow Pages or go online to
find providers in your area. You could also
check other senior facilities and get names of pet
therapy providers from them. One advantage of
talking to other facilities is first hand references
and recommendations. It may take a little
work, but the smiles and happy faces will make it
all worth it when you light up your facility!
Joanna Leefer is a senior care advisor and founder
of ElderCareGiving, an agency that advises families
on how to get the best care for their frail loved
ones. Find out more at
www.joannaleefer.com. Her book, Almost
Like Home: A Family Guide to Navigating the Nursing
Home Maze, will be available in the fall of 2013.