Animals That Heal
Across Charlotte, therapists are turning to horses and dogs to help patients young and old
Veronica Skoczek riding Zipper at a competition in South Carolina
Erica Anne de Flamand
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Our pets are our companions, playmates, and conﬁdantes, acting in almost every way like the family members we expect them to be. It’s no surprise that the bonds go so deep: animals lower blood pressure, reduce harmful stress hormones, and raise levels of the neurochemical oxytocin, the same chemical produced by breastfeeding women that promotes feelings of contentment.
The physiological eﬀects of animals are only some of the obvious ways they can boost human health. Animal-assisted activities such as therapeutic horseback riding and pet therapy programs are ﬂourishing. These methods aren’t just feel-good adjuncts to conventional treatments for physical and emotional woes; they are effective approaches in their own right. Proponents say health-focused human-animal encounters can speed healing or trigger breakthroughs where other eﬀorts fall short. No wonder more area providers and therapists are using animals to help patients work through painful emotions, endure difﬁcult medical procedures, or push the limits of their disabilities.
Veronica Skoczek, 15
Veronica Skoczek sits tall in her saddle as she grabs the reins of her favorite pony, MacGuyver, and ﬁrmly commands the brown Connemara-Thoroughbred cross horse forward. With a subtle tug on the right rein, then a pull on the left, she guides him around a series of barrels. A verbal click and a squeeze of her thighs propel him into a trot, and Veronica’s face beams as she moves gracefully around the ring. Her dark locks pulled into a ponytail under her riding helmet, she looks just like any other horse-crazy teenager in the saddle on a warm spring day.
When she dismounts with the help of her instructor, however, the difference between her and other girls is obvious. The South Charlotte teen was born with cerebral palsy. Her long limbs bend awkwardly and her short walk back into the barn is halting.
Yet she celebrates every step. Before she began riding horses with Mitey Riders, a therapeutic riding program at Misty Meadows Farm near Waxhaw, she could barely walk on her own and was dependent on a walker. “Doctors told us that she might even need a wheelchair to get around when she was a teenager,” says Anna Skoczek, Veronica’s mother. After several years of riding, however, Veronica’s gait is getting better and better—no walker or wheelchair needed.
The reason horses make good physical therapists is that the rhythmic pattern of the animal’s gait mimics the human gait and stimulates nerves in ways that promote better alignment, muscle symmetry, and postural control. Therapeutic riding has been shown to help riders with several disabilities, including multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and cerebral palsy.
“Veronica used to fall all the time at school. The children called her a bouncy ball because she was always going up and down,” says Anna. “But after she started riding, we saw a huge difference.” Being in the saddle strengthens a rider’s core muscles, allowing the teen to sit tall on and off the horse. And each time she takes the horse’s reins, her tight leg and arm muscles relax, allowing her to master the careful moves that tell the horse where to go and what to do. That’s translated into greater control of her own movement.
So much better control, in fact, that three years ago, Veronica’s Mitey Riders instructors decided she might be ready to enter a horse show at Fox Point Farm in Fort Mill—one geared toward her more able-bodied peers. “We were there just to have fun and see how it looks on ‘the other side,’” says Anna. Veronica did that and more, taking home a blue ribbon—the top spot—in one of the classes. No one but her family and the Mitey Riders crew—not the other participants, the spectators, or the judge—ever knew that the strong girl on the brown horse had a disability.
“I didn’t care if I won any ribbons,” Veronica says. “But when I did, it was very joyful for me. I feel powerful when I am riding.”
Gov, Therapy Dog
When Pam Guion and her large golden retriever, Governor Dewey, walk down the corridor at Presbyterian Hemby Children’s Hospital, they set off a cascade of happy squeals as they pass each open door. Gov is here! When the pair approaches a small girl in a stroller, the dog sits down in front of her, letting her bury her head in his just-washed fur. Guion and Gov move on, stepping into a room where a girl is being helped from her hospital bed into a chair to pet the dog. When Guion gently places Gov’s head in the girl’s lap, a nurse suggests she use her weak left hand to stroke his head and ears— a ploy to slip in a little physical therapy.
Several therapy dogs forged a bond with Mercede Carmichael, called Cede, who was admitted to Presbyterian with leukemia in 2011 and died there on February 13, after nine grueling months of chemotherapy. “She would wait for dog day,” says her mother, Melissa. “It’s what got her through.” On days when she felt so ill that she didn’t leave her bed all day, the nine-year-old would still manage to get up to greet her furry friends. She even dressed up as “Beast,” a Great Pyrenees, at the hospital’s Halloween party last year.
But it was Gov with whom she really connected. “He would immediately drag Pam to [Cede’s] door, before they had even checked in with the main ofﬁce,” says Melissa. “He would get in bed with her and just lay there for the longest time. They had an amazing bond. It’s hard to describe, but when he walked in the room, Cede left the world of childhood cancer and was just a girl with a dog. It took her mind off of things that no child should have to go through.” The Carmichaels paid tribute to the special role the dogs played in Cede’s treatment by seating them in the front row at her celebration of life service.
Animal therapy teams make a big commitment to be in the hospital. Potential volunteers must submit to background checks, and their pets undergo training and licensing through organizations such as Therapy Dogs International (TDI), which is responsible for millions of animal therapy visits nationally. Dogs are taught where to place their heads to be massaged by small hands and how to maneuver around IVs and medical equipment. They also learn to avoid licking and to tolerate abrupt motions and loud noises. There’s a waiting list of people—and pets—who want to participate in this program and in a similar one at Levine Children’s Hospital.
Guion, a retired elementary teacher, had always wanted to be a nurse. Having a therapy dog has been the next best thing in her life’s second act. “It’s the best feeling in the world when a parent tells you that you made their child smile for the ﬁrst time that day,” she says.