Sally Bowman begins all her visits at UAB the same. She goes for a run to get her head right, gets cleaned up to look her best for patients, and puts on her volunteer uniform and badge. Sally greets everyone she meets with a smile whether patient, employee, or another visitor like herself. Her goal is to provide comfort and encouragement to everyone.
Sally is not your typical volunteer, though. Sally is a terrier mix breed and a member of nonprofit organization Hand in Paw. She is an integral part of their mission: to improve the health and well-being of children and adults by serving those with physical, emotional, educational, or psychological needs through interactions with professionally-trained Animal-Assisted therapy teams. Sally’s teammate is her owner and handler Cindy Bowman.
Bowman first encountered Hand in Paw while visiting her grandmother at Mount Royal Towers nursing home in Birmingham, and thought it would be great to be a part of their organization. Not long after adding Sally to their family, she knew Sally would fit as a therapy dog when she remained calm and collected as her daughter dressed her in baby clothes and wheeled her around in a baby carriage.
“I’m blessed to be a stay at home mom and can volunteer,” Bowman says. “It’s incredible to see the difference she makes [with patients].”
Though Bowman knew Sally would be a natural, the process to become a team was involved. Sally had to go through a basic obedience course, and they both had to go through Hand in Paw’s training course, followed by multiple shadow visits as well as an evaluation that included an aggression test of the animal.
“[Hand in Paw] makes you realize the commitment and they also want to make sure this is something you want to do,” Bowman says.
There are several requirements for the handler and animal when performing visits. Bowman is never allowed to let go of Sally’s leash, or stand away from Sally while a patient is petting her. Sally also has to have a bath before every visit to prevent bringing in germs.
“My job is to take care of her, and the [UAB] therapist’s job is to take care of the patient.” Bowman helps maintain this by squatting next to Sally and the patient while they pet or play with Sally to keep her at ease.
Bowman said it’s great to see the difference that Sally’s visits have on other patients at Spain Rehabilitation Center. “It’s amazing to see how they improve at Spain. I think it’s rewarding because you touch people’s lives.”
Deborah Tidd, a patient at Spain Rehab reaffirmed this when she told Sally that she was some of the best medicine she had received since coming to the hospital.
“A lot of our patients have pets at home, and Sally reminds them of home,” said Diana Labrador, a COTA (Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant) at Spain. “It takes their mind off whatever is happening.”
Penny Anthony has seen the advantages of pet therapy both as an occupational therapist at UAB and as a patient. Anthony spent four months at UAB as she recovered from serious injuries sustained during the deadly tornadoes of April 27, 2011. During that time, Cindy and Sally visited her. Though she has no memory of anything during that time, Anthony was informed that she would respond to Sally’s visits. Cindy even took in Anthony’s dog P-Nut while she was in the hospital.
“Sometimes a pet can give you confidence, reassurance, and understanding that possibly another human can’t,” Anthony says. “They know something is wrong and they’re just there to make you feel better.”
Pet therapy is more than making patients feel better, it is also a motivational tool to help them reach a goal to increase their progress. Therapists will use pet therapy as a reward with patients while still reaching their patient’s objective by having them brush, pet, or play with the animals that visit. Doctors can even request pet therapy, also known as petscription, to help patients in their progress.
Anthony’s first experience with pet therapy involved a patient who would not respond to any commands, rendering her dependent. The staff ordered pet therapy, knowing the patient was an animal lover and hoping it would inspire a response.
“The patient, who hadn’t been following any commands at all, who had been non-responsive, followed her first command by petting a dog,” Anthony says.
When Sally comes to visit, patients light up, Anthony says, because many of them have pets at home that they are missing, and she is their pet away from home.
“Cindy and Sally are just uplifting in all ways. It just makes me happy when I think of them and the mission that Hand in Paw does,” Anthony says.
Learn more about Hand in Paw at handinpaw.org.