OGDEN — Seventy dogs, a handful of cats, a parrot and a mini-horse spend several hours a day providing comfort, love, hope and healing to those in need.
The animals are part of Therapy Animals of Utah, which provides service throughout the state.
“We currently have over 100 members with 70-plus active animal handler teams,” said Gaelyn Derr, executive director. “We have nine teams that visit hospitals from Sandy to Ogden. We have 10 teams that visit psychiatric residential facilities.”
In addition, Derr said, there are teams that work in schools and libraries, convalescent care and hospice facilities, pretty much anywhere the animal-human bond is needed.
“The universal aspect of animal-assisted therapy is the unconditional love and acceptance of humans by an animal,” Derr said. “Most clients relax and feel comfortable in the presence of an animal.”
According to the group’s website, it has been scientifically documented that animals improve health in humans. For instance, cats can lower a person’s blood pressure. Guinea pigs can help children read and some dogs can sense when a human needs medical help, even before the person does.
“Therapy animals are also referred to as social catalysts. If you bring an animal into a group setting, people will talk to the animal and each other more easily,” Derr said. “We have witnessed two occasions where a client entering a skilled nursing convalescent facility will not speak until an animal is present.”
An affiliate of the Delta Society, Therapy Animals of Utah follows strict training and conduct guidelines. The first step is for the human to take an eight-hour training course, followed by a screening evaluation to ensure teams work well together and the animals are controllable, reliable, predictable and inspires confidence in those they visit.
One such experience Derr had involved a woman in a local skilled nursing center who had not spoken to anyone in the building for six years. After visiting her with a dog, however, the woman opened up and began talking about her own childhood pooch.
“At an assisted living facility in Tooele County, we visited a very pleasant woman with a young woman and her golden retriever for about 20 minutes. We thought the visit went quite well,” Derr said. “We had gone outside of the facility to discuss the visit with the new team when the CNA from the woman’s unit came running out to tell us that this particular woman was the meanest person at the facility, yet she was very nice and pleasant with us. He could not believe the change in her personality.”
Derr said the organization is always looking for new members.
“We can’t fill the demand for our services,” she said.
The group also visits residents at the George E. Wahlen Ogden Veterans Home and will hold a training course there in October, Derr said. In late August and early September, the group will have a booth set up at the Ogden Farmer’s Market.
The rewards of being involved with the group are many, Derr said, whether it be a person’s animal helping a stroke victim move an arm, getting people to speak to each other or just being there for someone to pet.
For more information, call 801-280-1855 or go to www.TherapyAnimalsUtah.org.