Arlington Program Brings Pet Therapy to Seniors


(Saturday, February 17, 2007 8:01 AM EST)

A cuddly canine can bring joy to people of all ages, but can be particularly beneficial to seniors.

At a recent event at the Walter Reed Community Center, public health nurse Diane Hendel showed how pets can raise seniors' spirits through cuddling and playing, while also helping them stay active and engaged.

“Sometimes, people will respond better to pets than people,” Hendel said. “Pets don't ask for much, and they give a lot of love and attention.”

Hendel has seen cases of patients who were severely depressed and wouldn't interact with any people, but opened up once they spent time with a pet. Interacting with a pet can be a lot more comfortable than interacting with people, she said.

Hendel has two dogs, P.D. (Puppy Dog) and Leoni, that she brings to the Madison Adult Day Health Care Center on a regular basis to boost the morale and physical health of participants.

P.D., a yellow Labrador Retriever, is a senior himself (in dog years) at the ripe old age of 14. He is a retired guide dog and in his younger years could respond to 56 commands, pull a wheelchair, turn lights out and perform numerous other helpful tasks.

These days, P.D. takes it easy and spends time at Madison. He is trained to walk around a room and spend time with each person there. He is tall enough that people who are seated do not have to stoop down to give him a hug.

“Being able to cuddle with a dog is very reassuring,” Hendel said.

Leoni is an 11-month-old Australian Labradoodle, who was bred for temperament, strength, intelligence and non-shedding. She is still a puppy and currently is training to be a guide dog. Since she is younger than P.D., she is more active with seniors, playing fetch with a tennis ball and performing tricks.

“I use the dogs as encouragement to get seniors moving and to help them work their muscles,” Hendel said. “Sometimes brushing dogs or throwing a ball can be good exercise.”

Hendel understands that as people get older, taking care of pets can become more difficult, which is why she offers pet interaction at the adult health care center.

But for those who don't attend the center or have easy access to a pet, the Madison Community Center dog park is a great place to watch pups at play.

Richard Hall and Leoni, an Australian Labradoodle, enjoy each other's company.
(Photo by Kristen Armstrong)

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