Everyone’s best friends: Therapy dogs help reduce anxiety, loneliness, grief and depression


Jared Wadley believes dogs can heal people.

Wadley is a current board member and former president of Therapaws of Michigan Inc., and has spent the past eight years as a therapy dog handler.

“My current therapy dog of four years is Legend, an eight-year-old collie,” described Wadley. “Because of his markings, people like to call him ‘Lassie’ from the popular TV show.”

In the Ann Arbor-area, Therapaws visits hospitals, schools, libraries, and extended care facilities—including the University of Michigan Hospitals and the University of Michigan campus. They also participate in dog-related events held by other non-profit organizations.

For instance, Wadley brought his dog to the “Investing in Ability” event,  which is coordinated by U-M Council for Disability Concerns.

One specific happening was “Dogs in the Diag,” which had teams on hand at the Duderstadt Center and Diag.

“When people interact, pet, and hug therapy dogs, it lowers their blood pressure,” explained Wadley. “It also reduces anxiety, loneliness, grief, and depression. In addition, if the individuals are involved in rehabilitation or some other therapeutic program, the dogs motivate people to participate by building trust and teamwork. Overall, the dogs provide a calming and relaxing environment.”

Wadley said feedback is often positive because people enjoy being around dogs and state that they feel much better from interacting with the dogs.

Wadley has some advice for people who own dogs.

“When I visit hospitals, libraries or schools with Legend, I use the time in certain situations to tell people about the importance of spending quality time with their own dogs,” described Wadley.  “A common response I get is, ‘My dog is too energetic or doesn’t behave consistently to do therapy work.’ I ask them, ‘How often do you train your dog and how much exercise does he/she get daily?’ When the answers are ‘none’ or ‘very little,’ respectively, then I indicate that is the problem.”

Wadley also offers some good advice for anyone with a dog.

“I recommend 10-15 minutes of training daily (basic commands) and, for some breeds, at least 45 minutes to an hour of controlled walking daily,” stated Wadley. “Controlled means the dog isn’t pulling the leash and he’s paying attention to the handler’s movement/pace. Training is a fun, rewarding activity that develops the bond between the dog and its handler.”

There are even more specific kinds of training for dogs doing therapy work.

“For dogs to do therapy work, they need to follow the basic commands: sit, stay, come, leave it, down, heel, wait,” detailed Wadley. “They should also have a calm temperament and be well-behaved around people and other dogs.”

But not everyone can turn their dog into a therapy dog.

“Therapy work isn’t for everyone,” explained Wadley. “In addition to having a well-behaved dog, the handler must be willing to volunteer on a regular basis. For instance, for a team interested in the READ program, which children read to the therapy dog, the handler must be reliable because the children expect consistency with the visits. Also, the handler must be a ‘people person.’ There are times in which the dog would be excellent for the program, but the handler may not be outgoing, engaging or talkative.”

Wadley’s two sons have also worked with the therapy dogs as well.

“Sometimes, a person can learn those interacting skills to become an effective team. My sons, Jordan (17) and Devin (16), were among the first junior handlers with Therapaws,” explained Wadley. “A junior handler is between 12-17 years old who handles the dog during visits under the supervision of an adult. At age 12, Jordan was an engaging teen with his friends, but found it a bit challenging to do the same with strangers. In other words, besides talking about the dog, he didn’t know what else he could discuss with a patient in an extended care facility, then later the VA Hospital.”

There is more training involved than just working with the dog.

“I taught him to pay attention to his surroundings. In a patient’s room, there are family photos in frames,” described Wadley. “Often times, they are watching a TV show. I told Jordan to say ‘I like those photos of your family. Tell me about them.’ With the TV show, he would ask ‘What TV show are you watching? Is it a good episode?’ After a short time, he became more comfortable. Plus, patients always praise my sons when they see them doing volunteer work with Legend. And, when they volunteer at the Ypsilanti Township Library or local school for a READ activity, the children feel good reading to a young person rather than an adult.”

Wadley has some advice for others considering helping out.

“I would encourage people with well-behaved dogs and at least a few hours per month to consider volunteering as a therapy dog team,” stated Wadley. “Seeing how people interact with these well-behaved therapy dogs is priceless. At its core, doing this volunteer work is simply taking your dog for a walk and talking to people.”

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