Jennifer Solomon is a young woman who runs an intriguing and important service Pets Helping People. As a licensed pet therapist Jen uses animal assisted therapy to help others. Read how Jen has used her pets in a therapeutic setting with young girl who is severely cognitively impaired and an elderly man who suffers from mild Alzheimer’s disease
1. What is pet therapy?
Pet therapy (aka: animal assisted therapy) involves the use of animals to help improve the health, functioning and quality of life of people in need. Pet therapy is a goal directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Pet therapy is designed to promote improvement in physical, cognitive, emotional and social functioning. Clients include children, adolescents, psychiatric patients, intellectually handicapped and physically handicapped individuals, those who are incarcerated, and, most commonly, the elderly.
2. What led you to become a pet therapist?
I graduated from Concordia University in 2000, with a B.A. in Psychology. I have always loved interacting with people; I find human beings very fascinating creatures. As much as people, I have always loved animals. I grew up surrounded by many pets, a dog, 3 cats, fish, turtles, a guinea pig, etc. Following graduation, my first job was working as a unit agent at a hospital. I worked there for five years, behind the nursing station, answering call bells, dealing with patients concerns, difficult family members, etc... One evening, a patient who was scheduled for surgery the next day, had a very simple request. In case things did not go so well in the O.R., she wished to receive a visit from her beloved dog. This turned out to be a wish the hospital could not (would not) grant; health policies simply did not allow animals on the wards. Troubled by this, I began researching the presence of animals in health care settings and fell upon a school which taught pet therapy.
3. How long have you been a pet therapist?
I enrolled the following week, to begin my courses in animal assisted therapy. Although the school was three hours away from my home and only taught in French, this did not deter me. Following the completion of the course in June 2004, I, a licensed pet therapist, continued to work at the hospital full time and practice pet therapy on the side slowly developing a business plan. In April of 2005, I officially quit my job at the hospital and practiced pet therapy full time. I am now proud to say that my business is officially booming and occasionally, I even find myself in the awkward and surprising position of turning away clients for lack of time! .
4. What qualifications do you need to become a pet therapist? What is your educational background?
To become a pet therapist, one should be licensed. A licensed pet therapist is a professional who is part of the clinical team. One should be able to set specific goals with residents, evaluate the process of attaining them and report any observations directly to the medical team. It is clear that bringing an animal to a person is like opening a door to their psyche and basic psychological training is important in order to walk through that door effectively and safely. One must also understand the rationale behind the requirement for animals, i.e., there are times and situations to include a lively dog and other times to include a calm, quiet animal. One should have the knowledge on techniques for interactions with patients with various disabilities. One must be able to recognize animal stress. One must be familiar with infection control issues. One must be aware of liability issues as well as techniques for preventing injuries..
5. Who are the pets that you are currently using?
The pets that I am currently using are professionally trained, domesticated, fully vaccinated and maintained by me. The animals are: a dog - a 14 pound silky terrier named Ralph; a very calm and gentle rabbit named Q-Tip; and a turtle dove named Ivory, who loves to sit on people’s heads and coo. The animals are used on a rotating schedule for maximum sensory stimulation opportunities. Through the gracious support of friends and neighbours, I also have access to turtles, tarantulas, iguanas and even spiders though for the sake of my keeping my marriage intact, I have had to agree not to keep them in the house!!!.
6. How do you work? Do people come to you? Do you bring your pets to your clients?
I travel to all my clients, who are all located in residences. I bring either one, two or three animals depending on the client with whom I am working. I work either one-on-one with a patient in their room or in a common area; or I animate in a group session. Both I and the recreation coordinator and other staff members come together to identify appropriate residents, as well as their individual needs, interests and functional abilities.
7. How do people benefit from pet therapy?.
I will give you three specific examples of clients who have benefited from pet therapy as I feel that case studies are often more effective than simply citing scientific data.
In one case, I work with a young girl who is severely cognitively impaired. She does not exhibit any reaction to any kind of stimuli. As soon as I place an animal on her wheelchair tray, she smiles and independently pets the animal. According to the animators at the centre, this is one of the only times in her week when she reacts by smiling and that she spontaneously stretching out her arm. With this particular client, the animals are able to elicit a response that humans can not.
In another example, I visit an elderly man who suffers from mild Alzheimer’s disease. He feels he is alone in the world, with no companionship. When I first began rounds on his floor, he refused to see me. He said that he didn’t want to see anyone, that he had no need for people. Over several weeks, becoming used to my presence in the halls, he gradually began letting me into his room, just to see the animal, and not to talk. One day, while petting the rabbit, he began to cry and admit to me how lonely he truly was. The animals had “broken the ice” so to speak, and enabled him to open up more than he ever had with the staff of his long-term care facility. During our sessions, he plays with the animals and forgets his sorrows. His mind is occupied by a happy event, and he opens up about his life, his fears etc. He has now even begun leaving his room in order to attend other activities in the centre. The animals have helped stimulate this man’s social interactions.
In my third example, I visit a group of seniors in a nursing home. They are all very alert and functional and my role here is more one of promoting socialization. Rather than seeing them one-on-one, I plan group activities to educate and stimulate. In addition to playing with the animals, we have theme days where we learn about animals of the rainforest, of the African Savannah or about aquatic wildlife, complete with posters, books, newspaper clippings of human interest stories and animal models. We even have games such as charades where each senior has to act out an animal while the rest of the group tries to guess who they are. The seniors love this, it gives them a chance not only to get up and jump and crawl and perform physical activity but also to act silly and laugh with and at each other. .
8. What do you like most about your work?.
What I like most about my work is that it combines all my skills, training, experiences education and loves. Every day I get to use my medical training, my psychology background, my love for animals and my desire to help those in need. I still need to pinch myself sometimes when I think that I actually make a living at this. I will never get jaded or bored of seeing people’s reaction to the animals. Their stories and life experiences are a constant source of inspiration to me in all aspects of my life. I also appreciate the fact that as my own boss, I am free to make my own hours, see the clients that I want and easily see myself continuing to work on my own terms when my husband and I start a family in what I hope is the not-too-distant future. .