Therapy Dogs

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MEXICO – Patients in the Behavioral Health Senior Care Unit of SSM St. Mary’s Hospital in Mexico look forward to visits from two furry friends twice each month.

Sparkle and Sammy are two therapy dogs that take trips with their handlers to the new 20-bed inpatient unit for senior citizens who are going through a psychiatric crisis or who have mental disorders.

For some patients, these visits have long-lasting impacts.

“Giving them that little boost and a reason to get out of bed and a reason to stay motivated for their therapies has really helped them through some stressful situations,” said therapeutic recreation specialist Judy Kelly.

Unlike service or assistance dogs, a therapy dog’s sole purpose is to provide affection and comfort for people who need support. Because of this, any dog with the proper temperament could become a therapy dog.

“They’re just pets,” said therapy dog handler Brenda Hickman. “That’s all they were, and I would say most therapy dogs are starting out just as pets.”

Hickman said the mid-Missouri area has a need for more therapy dogs. Besides her hospital visits, she also brings her therapy dog to work with people at local schools, churches and libraries.

“People are begging for them,” Hickman said. “We would love to be here more than twice a month, but we have obligations and we just can’t be here that much.”

Hickman received training through Ann Gafke’s Teacher’s Pet program in Columbia. Both the dog and the handler must be trained in order to become certified.

Despite the hard work, Hickman said the payoff is more than worth it.

“It brings tears to your eyes when you think about the different things the dogs can do for people because they’re non-judgmental and they’re just there just to be there,” Hickman said.

For now, the dogs will visit St. Mary’s Hospital just twice a month, but the hospital is eventually looking to have its own full-time therapy dog.

For more information about local therapy dog training, visit Ann Gafke’s Teacher’s Pet’s website.