Pet Therapy Goes Virtual

Courtesy of Orange County Animal Allies

Even pet therapy groups are changing the way they do things in the COVID-19 world. 

We are all adapting to our new world of sheltering-in-place and social distancing in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

That includes therapy dog teams like those with Orange County Animal Allies, formerly known as Orange County SPCA.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic and state-mandated, stay-at-home orders in place, physical visitation programs have been completely suspended,” said Executive Director Kevin Marlin. “I took the initiative early on to cancel all visits in the first week of March. It was a difficult decision because on the one hand, stress and anxiety levels were at an all-time high, yet the health and safety of the community and our volunteers superseded the need. It was the right thing to do, but we greatly miss volunteering to help serve the community and seeing our residents and children.”

The non-profit group has been providing pet-assisted therapy to Orange County for 27 years. Their various programs currently host 108 dog therapy teams that provide services to all ages and needs in the community, according to Marlin. They normally visit a range of health care and assisted living facilities, including skilled nursing and care centers, memory care, physical rehabilitation and occupational therapy, mental health and addiction/substance abuse recovery. They also work with children’s homes, autistic children’s programs and special day classrooms at the elementary and middle school levels. Other programs include PANDA, which works directly with the Orange County District Attorney’s office to help comfort and support child victims of sexual assault and abuse while they work with the prosecution team for their cases, and AirPAWS, offering some soothing to anxious passengers traveling through John Wayne Airport.

“Since the lockdown and suspension began, our teams and I have worked together to create innovative messaging to send to our facilities, schools and clients where we can,” he said. “Volunteers have been sending in cute photos and videos of their dogs with messages to those they can’t see in person right now, some of which are being shown on closed-circuit TV within the facilities and in other cases printed and given to the residents to help remind them we are still here for them even [when] we can’t be with them.” 

They have also held virtual visits with several classrooms via Zoom. 

Courtesy of Orange County Animal Allies

Ironically, this is a time when people need pet therapy the most. 

“All of this comes at a time when pet therapy couldn’t be more beneficial,” he said. “The levels of anxiety, stress, depression and fear are compounded daily by uncertainty and confusion — and the isolation and inability to have physical contact leaves us all feeling alone. Many of our normal clients and residents are in facilities where they have left their own pets behind, or no longer have them, leaving them to depend on our therapy dogs to provide them with the support and unconditional love only a warm furry friend can.”

He said some of their clients are now going on two months of not seeing their favorite dogs and handlers — teams they may have known for years. 

“The health benefits and emotional well-being that our dogs provide has sadly been taken away from them at a time when it is most needed,” he said. “It is truly a frustrating time for us.”

He said many animals — particularly dogs — are able to intuitively extract and understand human emotion. 

“They sense an inner need to provide a calming and nurturing effect,” he said. “They do not judge, nor do they care or understand about their past, making their company and companionship a perfect match. The mere contact with and interaction with a dog increases levels of oxytocin, the hormone released during affection and reduces blood pressure and heart rate. Merely having direct eye contact with an animal seems to allow them to peer into your soul and creates the same benefits.”

Marlin does have a couple of tips on how families can get a little therapy out of their own pets. 

“The companionship and unconditional company and love that our pets provide for us has never been so important,” he said. “Make sure to include your pets in your daily routine, giving them attention and involving them in family activities while at home. That said, it is also important to give them some ‘alone’ time while stuck at home. Just as we all need a break, our pets are no different. For many of our pets they are not used to having us around all the time and just like us are having to adapt to the changes.”

He said the group is anxiously awaiting the moment they can get back to serving the community. 

“For the dogs, many of the handlers report that they appear depressed not being able to make people happy, reinforcing the rewarding feedback they too receive when they’ve been able to make someone smile,” he said. “Until the physical interaction is able to return again, we’ll be waiting patiently and hopeful that we can do it again soon.”

 — By Jessica Peralta 


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