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Tallahassee's Pet-Assisted Therapy Program One of Nation's Best


Tallahassee, FL – When Chuck and Patty Mitchell were tapped as Tallahassee's Philanthropists of the Year, it was also an honor for their major project - spreading pet-assisted therapy throughout local hospitals, schools, courtrooms and nursing homes. Margie Menzel prepared this report.

[Sound of dogs barking and playing]

It's the Fall Doggie Social for the ComForT program - short for Companions for Therapy - on a large, fenced-in spread east of town. The humans and canines are used to working together, as ComForT has become one of the biggest and best programs in the country, with more than 150 teams. Many pets have a sixth sense that allows them to enter a roomful of people and go straight to the one who needs them most, says Chuck Mitchell. His partner, Rikki, the golden retriever with whom he visits Tallahassee Memorial and Florida State Hospitals, was rescued from Hurricane Katrina.

"They can sure do a little bit for a lot of people, and sometimes they do a tremendous amount for a specific individual," Mitchell said. "There's not a team who hasn't been working for at least six months who can't tell you about a flat miracle that they witnessed at the other end of the leash."

TMH Director of Volunteer Services Amy McDaniel saw one such encounter. She was conducting an orientation for a new pet therapy team, and they entered the room of an elderly woman who'd been there for weeks.

"She wasn't in a coma, but she was definitely not responding very well," McDaniel said. "And the pet came over - it was a large poodle - and the son placed his mom's hand on the poodle, and she immediately turned and looked at the dog and put a little smile on her face. And he said, 'That's the first real interaction she's had in days.'"

Anecdotal evidence is clear: therapy animals tend to calm and engage patients. Now scientific studies are showing this, too. TMH President and CEO Mark O'Bryant:

"It's more than just a distraction therapy. It actually is a therapeutic service that can impact the recovery process," he said.

Studies show that the presence of a friendly animal can lessen anxiety and depression, reduce blood pressure, lower heart rate and increase speech, memory and mental clarity. TMH began its program in 2005 and is now expanding it to reach more patients and families. The hospital is also documenting the outcomes. Stephanie Perkins, who coordinates ComForT as a volunteer:

"A lot of people will do things for the dog that they won't do for the therapist. You know, they're not going to reach over to scratch something if it's not a dog," Perkins said. "'My dog wants to be petted - would you reach over and squeeze her head?' They may try a little harder for that...It doesn't seem like therapy when you're doing it with an animal."

TMH Adult Rehab Coordinator Sheree Porter says the dogs jump-start a patient's therapy. Patients may not want to ambulate up and down the hall with a therapist, she says...

"But give them a leash and let them walk the dog, and they become much more - not only motivated, but empowered."

Hospitals are hardly the only settings where ComForT is making a difference. They're in schools and libraries, too, teaching kids by having them read to a patient canine. Patty Mitchell, who coordinates the R.E.A.D. program - for Reading Education Assistance Dogs - also visits schools with her yellow lab, Roscoe.

"You see improvement in children's self-confidence, their attendance level - even their hygiene - but also their speaking skills," she said. "We have the opportunity to help them practice their reading, but there are settings in our community where children are allowed and encouraged to write, or practice their homework, or maybe look at a geographical map of the world that they've never seen before."

Now the dogs are even in courtrooms. Helene Potlock, Victim Advocate for the State Attorney in the Second Judicial Circuit, says pet therapy has been "incredibly helpful" to child victims and witnesses. The most troubling part of a criminal case, she explains, is testifying.

"They create this safe place for a witness to almost be distracted from being nervous - waiting to testify, which is usually an incredibly anxious time," Potlock said. "And now they have a dog that they can pet and they can play with, and comfort them, and they look forward to seeing that dog after they testify. So what a great program it has been."

TMH's Chief Nursing Officer, Barbara MacArthur:

"Children will talk about how they're feeling, about their symptoms, about their fears - and they'll tell the pet before they'll tell a human being, because the pet will never tell them whether they're right or they're wrong, and so they'll feel safe in that communication."

Nor is ComForT in just the criminal courts. A year ago, at the request of Wakulla County Court Judge Jill Walker, ComForT teams made their first visits to Dependency Court - a first for the State of Florida as well. These were to have been the first of two visits to see if the program was worth implementing permanently but Walker made it permanent after the first visit.