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Connecting With Canines

July 9, 2020

Tallahassee Memorial Hospital’s Animal Therapy program is among those that’s had to adjust to the COVID-19 pendemic. But both clients and (most of) their canine visitors seem to enjoy interacting on-screen.
Stephanie Perkins heads up the TMH Animal Therapy Program.

“So right now all of our visits are virtual, but for summer, we’ve started the ‘Dog Days of Summer’ program for community children,” she explained.

Several studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, shows significant improvement in young children’s reading skills when they read out loud to animals. In the past, that’s been done in person. But Perkins says the coronavirus has made the interaction electronic.

“They’re pre-scheduled Zoom calls and everyone logs in. The puppy is on the screen with the handler and the children will log in once a week for eight weeks. And at the end of eight weeks if they’ve attended all the sessions and done the reading, then they get a little gift from TMH; a little ‘Rikki’ stuffed doll and a book.”

“Rikki,” by the way, was the rescue dog turned into a therapy dog by Chuck and Patty Mitchell, whose efforts got TMH’s program off the ground years ago. But it seems not every therapy dog is equally skilled at online encounters, said Perkins.

“My very best in-person therapy dog isn’t really fond of these kinds of visits, so she sits just off screen and listens. But my other two boys will wander in and if you say their names or they hear someone talking through the computer, they are attentive and very interested.”

However, Perkins emphasized the Dog Days of Summer reading program isn’t the only aspect of animal therapy that’s gone virtual. The original mission of the outreach, to bring comfort and calm to those who need it, goes on.

“We’re working with one patient right now and we actually attend – virtually – some doctors’ visits with them just to help calm anxiety. That’s been super-wonderful! And she actually gets visits from all of my animals because I do my visits from home virtually. So it’s not just one dog, it’s 5 or 6 who wander through. So they get to meet all of my animals and they just love that.”

It seems animal magnetism projects pretty well through a computer screen.

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