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North Hills Monthly

Patients, Students, Staff and More Appreciate the Healing Powers of Therapy Pets

Jun 01, 2017 02:23PM ● By Shelly Tower Rushe

Riley moved closer to the wheelchair-bound woman’s left side. The nurse placed the woman’s hand over the 4-year-old Golden Pyrenees’ back and waited. For the first time since her stroke, the woman moved the fingers on her left hand as she gently petted Riley’s belly. 

This is just one example of the healing power that animals hold. Programs like Animal Friends’ Therapets work to train and place these pets where they are needed most. The volunteer-based program is made up of therapy animal teams that visit nursing homes, hospitals, retirement communities, assisted living communities, cancer centers, hospice facilities, workplaces, classrooms and more. Their goal is to provide relief in potentially high-stress environments.  

Amy Martello, therapeutic services coordinator, knows the reach of these helpers. “They do not just benefit the patients or students but the staff, other volunteers, family members and anyone else who likes a visit,” she said. “Everyone benefits from the loving touch of a therapy animal.”

The Therapets program is open to dogs, cats, rabbits and their human partners. Dogs have a specific training schedule and requirements. They must be at least 1 year old, a member of the family for at least six months; spayed or neutered; and up-to-date on vaccinations and check-ups.

Their humans must be at least 18 years old and able to attend the initial evaluation and all training classes. Therapets certifies teams and not individual animals.

The entire process takes approximately nine weeks (including a six-week course) and costs $105. Handlers must also attend Animal Friends’ volunteer training. From that point, the handler will meet with an Animal Friends’ representative who reviews policies and procedures, how to schedule visits and more.

Cats and rabbits have a different process. They first undergo an evaluation to determine whether they may be too fearful, stressed or overly excited. They are also required to be comfortable wearing a harness and leash or (for rabbits) sit in a basket; be able to stay on a stranger’s lap for petting for at least 30 seconds; accept “exuberant and clumsy” petting and tolerate a variety of emotional voices; have little startle reflex, and be comfortable having ears, tails, and feet touched. Cats must be tolerant of hugging and crowds.

There is no training commitment for the animal; however, the handler must attend Animal Friends’ volunteer training and meet with an Animal Friends’ representative. 

Humane Animal Rescue (formerly the Animal Rescue League and the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society) offers a Certified Therapy Dog program which is open to dogs over the age of one. The program focuses on behavior and obedience, and the length of the process depends heavily on previous training, the temperament and personality of the animal and its age. 

“What we do here at Humane Animal Rescue is offer obedience training classes that help prep dogs to take the evaluation—you can think of us like a coach,” explained Sarah Shively, program manager of Relocations & Behavior Training. Once the dog has successfully completed training and passed the evaluation, its owner can reach out to organizations for volunteer opportunities. 

Shively has two certified therapy dogs of her own. She recommends that therapy teams choose their volunteer opportunities based on what the dogs enjoy. “One of my dogs adores children and is very mellow so we do a lot of work in schools,” she explained. “My other dog really likes getting attention, so I take him to more of a hospital setting where we can work with people one on one.” 

While Therapets and certified therapy dogs can visit a variety of places across Pittsburgh, The Children’s Institute has their own designated dogs that participate in their pet therapy program.  The institute provides comprehensive treatments for children and youth with health care needs. The dogs that provide therapy to these kids have been pre-certified through Therapy Dogs International and handlers must submit clearances and attend a volunteer orientation. Once they are approved, handlers and dogs may visit students in the Day School as well as in the inpatient hospital on the pediatric rehabilitation unit and the pediatric behavioral health unit. 

Sarah Miedel works as the manager of the Therapeutic Activities Department and also brings her own dog, Linus, in every Thursday for therapy sessions. 

“The patients walk the dogs either inside the building or around the campus grounds, which promotes gross motor skills,” she said, explaining how dogs are used during active physical therapy sessions. “The dogs are also brushed during occupational therapy sessions to promote fine motor skills.”

Anyone with a certified therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International who would be interested in volunteering for the program at The Children’s Institute can contact Monica Smith at 412-421-2321. Information about the Therapets can be found on Animal Friends’ website,, and you can learn more about the 

Certified Therapy Dog program at