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Animal Assisted Therapy

The numerous benefits enjoyed by many as a result of therapy dog visits are made possible thanks to organizations like the Delta Society®, which sponsor programs devoted to animal-assisted therapy and activities, writes Sharon Pflaumer. Delta Society owes its origin to the far- sighted vision of a small group of individuals. In the late 1970s, several veterinarians and a psychiatrist noticed that many of their clients appeared to enjoy improved health and a sense of well-being as a result of association with their pets. In 1977, they founded the Delta Foundation® in Portland, Ore. to fund research on the benefits of the human and companion animal bond.

During the next decade, an increasing number of researchers and medical practitioners, who also believed humans could derive psychological and physiological benefits from interacting with an animal, conducted clinical studies that documented them, i.e., lower stress and anxiety levels; the stimulation of the release of endorphins that makes people feel good, reduced blood pressure and heart rate, etc. (Interestingly, some of the studies documenting reduced blood pressure and heart rates in humans after they stroked a dog, found the dog’s blood pressure and heart rates also were reduced as well as a result of being stroked.)

These findings motivated Delta Society®–whose name was changed to better reflect the broadening scope of its mission–to develop a program that put these proven theories into practice in an every day application. The Pet Partners® Program In 1990, Delta Society established the Pet Partners Program to facilitate the advancement of positive interaction between humans and animals safely by setting standards of behavior for interested owners and their companion animals.

To that end, the program offers instruction and evaluation to ensure that owners and their pets are well-prepared for participation in animal-assisted therapy and activities. Currently, Delta Society has more than 10,000 active Pet Partners registered teams, with each team consisting of one human and one animal. While the majority of teams are made up of dogs and their owners, the Pet Partners Program also offers training and registration to just about every other kind of domesticated animal: cats, horses, rabbits, Guinea Pigs, birds, etc.

Instruction focuses on teaching all owners to be effective handlers, but there’s a different evaluation for each animal species. (The Pet Partners Program also includes comprehensive training for health care professionals and volunteers in the use of animals in a therapeutic setting.) Requirements for Registration Specifically, handlers must complete a licensed Delta Society Pet Partners in- person workshop or home study of the manual, which includes a written examination. Their dogs must have a health screening by a veterinarian. Dog and handler teams must pass an evaluation where increasing pressure is gradually put on the dog to make certain it will not react negatively—snap or even bite. For example, dogs must accept petting from a stranger who walks up to them.

Small dogs must accept being passed from the lap of one stranger to that of two other strangers. Dogs must accept a restraining hug from a stranger. Dogs must accept being bumped from behind. And dogs cannot spook at loud noises or atypical behavior, i.e., crutches falling on the floor or someone babbling. (While any breed or mixed breed combination can be registered with the program, the determining factor is the individual dog’s temperament.)

The Evaluation doesn’t simply focus on scoring the dog’s performance. Each handler is evaluated and scored as well; plus, the dog and handler are evaluated and Copyright © 2010 Sharon Pflaumer 524 Haish Blvd. DeKalb, IL 60115 (815) 756-1040 scored on how well they work together as a team. Once a dog and handler team become registered Pet Partners, they’re covered by Delta Society’s commercial general liability insurance. If either member of a Pet Partners Team causes a loss while performing Pet Partners activities, the loss should be covered by that insurance.

For more information about the Delta Society Pet Partners Program, those interested may call (425) 679-5500 or visit

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