Feature Stories

The power to heal

Therapy animals join humans on the journey

By Nancy Crowe
One listens without correcting. Another dries tears. Yet another carries and eases a variety of challenges and life circumstances, one rider at a time.

These are not people with advanced degrees or clinical training. They are not, in fact, people. They are two dogs and a horse, therapy animals that calmly go where no human has gone before — reaching places in the soul where few, if any, humans can go.

That’s not to say they haven’t been educated. Therapy animals are trained and certified through programs appropriate to their species and work, but they are not the same as service animals, which often undergo more specialized training to assist those with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act legally defines and grants public access to service animals, while therapy animals have no such legal status.

So what makes a good therapy animal, whether said animal visits patients in healthcare facilities, listens to children read, supports a psychotherapy client struggling to heal or literally brings balance to the life of a disabled person? Temperament, which is often part of an animal’s breeding, is an important factor. So is the training they and their handlers undergo. But these can only go so far.
The power to heal — or more accurately to facilitate healing — is in a listening ear, a head on the lap, a nudge or the subtle adjustment of gait to a rider. It comes from a place of unbiased respect, keen intuition and unconditional love.

Meet Morgan, Lola and Kotter.




In a corner of the Allen County Public Library downtown, a black Lab with a slightly graying muzzle stretched out on a blanket as three small boys buzzed around him like bees. Morgan, wearing his yellow P.A.W.S (Pets Assisting Well-being and Success) bandana, was ready.

One of the boys sat down and opened a book titled, “When I Get Bigger.”

“Hmm . . . Morgan doesn’t know this story,” said his handler and human companion, Mary Bastress, sitting on the blanket beside him.

While the boy haltingly read the story aloud, Morgan listened as the boy’s brother petted and briefly lay on him. The third sat further away. “I’m not good with dogs,” he said.

When the second boy began to read — “Carl and the Puppies” this time — Morgan stood up to scratch an itch. Then there was a scent on a shoe that had to be investigated. But the moment Bastress gave him the hand signal for “down,” he was back to the business at hand. As the child kept reading, a security device beeped occasionally and voices from a theater rehearsal drifted in. A calm settled in.

After all three had their turn to read to Morgan, Bastress gently asked the wary one: “Do you want to give Morgan a pet before you go?” He shook his head — then lightly patted the dog’s back.

The next reader was a girl about 10, reading a chapter from “Movie for Dogs” in a voice so soft it could barely be heard. Morgan stretched out on his side, taking up most of the blanket. He heard it just fine.

Morgan, now 7, and Bastress have been part of the library’s PAWS to Read program for a few years. “I do it because I love to read and feel that it is one of the most important things we can pass on to our children,” she said.

A wide variety of children practice their reading skills with Morgan — 4-year-olds who read at elementary level, 10-year-olds who are struggling and everyone in between. Dogs, who are known for not interrupting or criticizing, are a perfect audience.

Studies bear this out: A Minnesota pilot project, PAWSitive Readers, found trained therapy dogs helped 10 of 14 grade-school students improve reading skills by one grade level. A University of California study showed children who read to the family dog improved their reading ability by about 12 percent. And why not? Reading to a furry friend beats standing up to read in class and having the other kids roll their eyes when you don’t quite get it right.

Morgan, whom Bastress adopted as a puppy, comes from a long line of therapy and service dogs bred for their intelligence and calm temperament. He has extensive training and is registered with Therapy Dogs Inc.

“He’s always loved kids. He’s always loved people,” she said.

So she does PAWS to Read to share a wonderful dog with children who may not have the opportunity to be around a dog — or are afraid of big dogs.

“Sometimes he amazes me when he rolls over and puts his head in a child’s lap,” Bastress said. “I’m thinking, ‘Well, you just won that kid over.’”




At the Summit Equestrian Center on a late afternoon, all was quiet in the stables except for rustling hay and the occasional snort. The facility, just inside the La Cabreah subdivision off Dupont Road, formerly housed prized Arabians. Lola, a 15-year-old Appaloosa mare, stuck her nose briefly out of her stall as if she was looking for something, or someone. Then an exuberant shriek pierced the air.

“Summer’s here,” program director Allison Wheaton and one of her assistants said in unison.

Summer has been taking riding lessons at Summit Equestrian Center for about a year and a half. The bright-eyed 10-year-old lives with CHARGE syndrome, a condition not unlike cerebral palsy, and gets around with a walker most of the time.

First came the prep work: grooming. “Nose to tail,” Wheaton coached as Summer ran a brush over Lola’s spotted coat. “Oh, that’s backwards — tail to nose!” Lola stood perfectly still apart from a swish of the tail.

Volunteers helped Summer onto Lola’s back from a platform at the top of a ramp. “She’s been doing so great, we’re going to just hold her ankles,” Wheaton said. The goal for all riders is to be as independent as possible.

Summer’s mom, Susan, can attest to her progress. “We’ve seen amazing trunk support. When she finishes a lesson, she can stand erect without swaying,” she said. “And obviously, she loves the horses.”

The lesson began with a walk around the grounds, accompanied by Wheaton, a leader and two side walkers. Summer easily adapted to Lola’s steady gait; clearly, the two had worked together before.

Not much is known about Lola’s life before she and her foal ended up at a Black Friday horse auction in Shipshewana a couple of years ago. The foal was taken from her as soon as they arrived, and she was screaming in agony. She would have been on her way to Canada to be sold for meat, Wheaton said, if a friend of a friend had not bought her that day.

Then the new owner lost her job, and Lola ended up at the Summit Equestrian Center, a therapeutic riding center Wheaton established in October 2010. It’s certified by PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) and works to improve the lives of children and adults of all abilities through interaction with horses — a range of cognitive, physical and emotional challenges are addressed.

Lola was in bad shape, both emotionally and physically, when she came to the center. “The thickest part of her neck was her hairline,” Wheaton said. Months of good food, work with a trainer and plenty of TLC helped Lola recover and get acclimated.

“We let her tell us what she liked to do and gave her options,” Wheaton said. She did not want to force Lola to be a therapy horse, but “we could tell very early on that she would be great at it.”

Even Lola’s spots are an asset. Children count them, or a rider will stretch by reaching to touch a particular spot.

Lola is the most reliable horse at the center, Wheaton said, and also the best jumper. “She’s wonderfully patient with all the volunteers —and me.”

Whatever rider Lola is working with is her No. 1 priority, and horses are intuitive creatures. Lola even sensed when a rider, a child reacting to a vaccine, was about to have a seizure; she suddenly stopped and froze to alert the staff and enable them to help the child. “She’s the horse we use for our most sensitive riders, because she does ‘get it,’” Wheaton said.

On this day, Wheaton led Summer and Lola through a few exercises — balancing in the saddle like a jockey, steering and even trotting. Shelby the yellow Lab, unconcerned, stretched out on the arena floor.

At the end of a lesson, Summer was helped off the horse. When her feet hit the floor, she walked unaided to where her mother was waiting. Lola’s steadiness is catching.




Like the TV teacher for whom he is named, Kotter seems to know exactly where his students — or, in this case, clients — are coming from.

The standard poodle works alongside Jan Eggiman, a marriage and family therapist. When she began researching animal-assisted therapy 10 years ago, there wasn’t much information available. But she knew she wanted a dog that didn’t shed, liked kids and possessed a certain wisdom. Standard poodles are good therapy dogs because of their intelligence and hypoallergenic coats.

She adopted Kotter at six weeks old from a breeder, and his training began. Kotter earned the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen certification and became a registered member of Therapy Dogs Inc.

Then what does a dog do in a therapy session? Among the many things Kotter does, Eggiman said, are calming angry moods, keeping secrets, validating feelings and listening without interrupting. As is often the case with humans who are trying to help, sometimes a kind and caring presence is more than sufficient.

The dog is especially effective with children, often breaking the ice with those who might feel apprehensive about talking to a therapist. Eggiman sets clear limits with her young clients regarding Kotter — pet him nicely, don’t play too rough and so forth. Rules and boundaries give kids a sense of security, she said.

This is especially true of children with anxiety disorders. Instead of making them more anxious, having some structure actually eases their anxiety. That in itself can add to a client’s learning.

“The more you know, the more powerful you feel,” she said. “The dog just helps set that up.”

What makes Kotter a good therapy animal, Eggiman said, is primarily his caring nature. He is steady, reliable, accepting and nonjudgmental, and he can change not only moods but the entire tone of a therapy session.

If someone cries, he’ll often lay his head on the person’s lap. “His timing is perfect,” she said. He’ll even dry tears.

At age 10, Kotter isn’t participating in as many therapy sessions these days. But age, training and other good qualities haven’t kept him entirely out of mischief. He still occasionally chews things he shouldn’t. At home, he’s escaped from the yard and even pawed open a neighbor’s back door, presumably to continue a conversation with the Lab living there. An insolent squirrel climbing up a wire and peering in the office window also routinely distracts him.

However, he sat quietly in a pew at Eggiman’s father’s funeral last April. As usual, he understood.

Posted: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 2:33 pm
Last updated: Wed, 09/04/2013 - 12:33 pm