By Kylee Toland
It’s safe to say that humans have done a lot to make sure their furry friends get the care they need. Whether it’s making sure they are in a healthy home or taking a trip to the vet, owners are almost always willing to put their pets’ needs in front of their own. However, this role can be taken on by the animals themselves when it comes to making sure their human is receiving care as well.
In recent years, the rise of service dogs and emotional support animals (ESA’s) has become more popular as they seem to have a beneficial effect on people as a whole. Whether it be one dog assisting its health-impaired owner, or a group of animals visiting an assisted living facility, the need for “animal” therapy is the new normal.
Although similar in some aspects, service dogs and ESA’s have vast differences. According to an article by the National Service Animal Registry (NSAR), service dogs are “specifically trained to perform a function or job for an owner that has a physical, intellectual or emotional disability,” whereas an ESA “serves as more of a companion for the owner.” To be legally considered an emotional support animal, a licensed mental health professional must prescribe ESA’s under law. According to an article by the American Kennel Club (AKC), “a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist must determine that the presence of the animal is needed for the mental health of the patient.”
In Virginia, there are a notable number of organizations that provide ESA’s for people in need. Fairfax Pets on Wheels, Inc. (FPOW) is an all-volunteer, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that “connects with people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Fairfax County.”
Wendy Mayer is the director of communications as well as a volunteer for FPOW. Mayer stated that the mission of the organization is to “bring companionship and improve quality of life to residents of participating nursing homes, assisted living facilities and adult day health care centers in Fairfax County.” Mayer said it’s also important to note that FPOW will “only visit those nursing homes and facilities with whom we have an agreement,” and stated that both the people and pets involved in the organization “have to adhere to in order to be approved for the program.”
Having started back in 1987 and coming up on its 35th anniversary, Mayer said FPOW started with a “relatively small group of volunteers’’ and “has grown since then.” The program is open for dogs, cats and bunnies to join, but Mayer said at the moment there are only dogs signed up to visit. These animals are owned by volunteers of the program, and must go through an “evaluation” on their obedience and behavior before being able to visit the facilities. FPOW is also approved by the American Kennel Club as an “AKC-recognized therapy dog group.”
As for what the animals bring to the nursing homes and other locations they visit, Mayer said that it’s “scientifically proven that touching animals and just visiting animals can have a calming effect on people,” which include “reducing anxiety, depression, lowering blood pressure, encouraging communication and socialization that they may not otherwise do.” To learn more about FPOW, visit fpow.org.
These animals don’t only serve people who are in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, but also service members and veterans. Paws for Purple Hearts is a nonprofit organization that is “the first organization of its kind to offer Canine Assisted Warrior Therapy.” According to its website, it is “the world’s only service dog organization for wounded Service Members and Veterans that partners with Bergin College of Canine Studies.” Bergin College, located in Penngrove, California, is currently the first and only in the world that focuses on training and learning about dogs.
Danielle Stockbridge is the Virginia site manager for Paws for Purple Hearts, and said the idea to start the program came from a student at Bergin who came up with a “canine intervention therapy pilot program.” Starting in 2011, the organization’s mission is to “assist veterans and active duty service members with mobility challenges and trauma-related conditions.” Stockbridge also said the program “tries to educate the public about the role that dogs can play in helping warriors in the recovery process.”
Stockbridge said Paws for Purple Hearts is “closely partnered” with the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, where the organization does “social therapy” and “hands-on therapy programs.” The dogs are trained to “mitigate the symptoms of trauma-like conditions,” with Stockbridge saying that “it’s really incredible to watch it happen” when one of their dogs knows what to do when someone in the program is showing signs of anxiety and trauma. To learn more about Paws for Purple Hearts, visit pawsforpurplehearts.org