Pets to the Rescue
From encouraging reading to healing the wounds of war, animals are improving lives throughout New Hampshire
Mountain Valley Treatment Center, located in Pike, New Hampshire, helps adolescents who struggle with OCD and anxiety disorders. Pictured here is one of the residents with staff member Greg Vogel, who owns the nearby Innerquest Equine Center and River House Farm. Photo by John Sherman Photography
Every Saturday, Chloë Traister heads to the Portsmouth Library to help children improve their reading. About once a week, Amherst resident Lunar Bachman volunteers at local nursing homes and hospice centers. And Siggy Young is training to become a volunteer therapist and work with struggling clients in one-on-one therapy sessions.
Of course, what makes these volunteers even more remarkable is that Chloë is a 7-year-old golden retriever, Lunar is a 2-and-a-half-year-old white ragdoll cat with a brown tail and Siggy is a 7-month-old green-cheeked conure — a type of small parrot native to the forests of South America.
Animal lovers already know that furry, fuzzy and feathery companions have the ability to lower physiological functions associated with stress. Since at least the 1980s, scientists have demonstrated that spending time with pets can reduce our blood pressure and heart rate. But animals are enhancing human well-being throughout New Hampshire in more surprising ways too. From licensed therapy animals to farm goats that make yogis chuckle while they’re in downward-facing dog, here are a few ways our animal friends are working to improve human happiness in the Granite State.
Contributing to therapy
Unlike service animals, such as guide dogs, who perform tasks and help their owners with disabilities, therapy dogs typically provide psychological support to people other than their handlers. What’s more, while service dogs shouldn’t be pet all the time because they can get distracted from their jobs, people are encouraged to pet and cuddle with therapy animals, who oftentimes have very friendly, relaxed temperaments.
As the name implies, therapy dogs can also aid in different types of psychological therapy and counseling.
“The therapeutic alliance is the relationship between the clinician and client, and research shows that a strong therapeutic alliance is a strong predictor of good client outcomes,” says Sarah Revels, who is trained in animal-assisted therapy and is the founder and managing clinician at New Hampshire Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies in Barrington. “Now there’s research that shows having an animal partner present dramatically increases the therapeutic alliance and speeds up how quickly you can build it,” adds Revels.
For example, Revels says that in her experience, it can take two or three months of sessions to get a child with selective mutism — when a person can not speak or communicate effectively in certain social settings — to begin to talk to her. With an animal in the room, she has regularly had children with the same diagnosis begin speaking in their first session, with the child sometimes directing his or her communication to the dog.
For adults with social anxiety, Revels has incorporated her two giant breeds — a 5-year-old greater Swiss mountain dog named Shug and a 6-year-old great Pyrenees mountain dog named Emma — into exercises outside the clinic.
“We know if we take the large dogs for a walk, people will notice them. So we roleplay some basic facts the client can tell people about the dogs, go through the questions people always ask about them, and what kind of behaviors we can you expect from people on the street,” she says. “The first time we go out I will walk the dog and the client watches how I make eye contact with others, answer basic questions, etc. The next session the client handles the dog, and if someone says hello and asks a question, it’s now the client’s responsibility to answer the questions and say hello. Dogs can be a great vehicle for some of that type of work.”
Revels is so convinced of the therapeutic benefits that her goal is to ultimately have one animal per clinician in the group, and she’s working with her clinicians to choose the animals carefully for different purposes. For now, her practice currently includes four therapy dogs and the green-cheeked conure named Sigmund, or Siggy for short. In the waiting room, hermit crabs welcome clients, who can pick them up while they wait for their appointment.
Animals are a large part of the treatment at the Mountain Valley Treatment Center, a nonprofit short-term residential treatment center for adolescents struggling with OCD and/or anxiety disorders, in Pike. Residents regularly interact with chickens and pigs and undergo equine-assisted therapy and exercises.
“At the heart of a lot of anxiety and OCD is a fear of uncertainty,” says Julia Hilton, a residential coordinator at Mountain Valley who has also worked as a primary therapist and is trained in equine-assisted mental health. “Oftentimes you have an adolescent who’s used to their home environment, where things have been wrapped around them for a long time because the families are trying their best to help their child in what we call accommodation.”
Hilton says their anxiety causes the kids to organize everyone in their life in a way that they can feel safe and secure and can avoid facing uncertainty. But when they do inevitably feel uncertainty, they are ill-equipped to handle it, and will engage in safety behaviors such as playing video games or isolating themselves.
A resident with one of Mountain Valley Treatment Center’s animal inhabitants. Photo by John Sherman Photography
“One of the reasons working with horses is so great is because there are a lot of unknowns when you’re around a 2,000-pound animal,” says Hilton. “Obviously, we make sure the kids are safe and train them in how to be around a horse. But even with the safety precautions, you’re still dealing with an animal with a mind of its own. In a big way it allows residents to confront perceived danger. It’s the opportunity to experience that in a safe way, supported by staff in a way that is a nice complement to more traditional talk therapy.”
She describes one activity called a round-pen exercise. “The client goes into a paddock, or round pen, with a horse and they notice how the horse is reacting to them. You have them come out and debrief that experience. What were you noticing, what was the horse doing, what were you thinking and feeling,” she says. “After you debrief and the client becomes aware of their feelings, the horse reacts differently to them. Horses are not necessarily afraid of the anger or anxiety, they’re just afraid when they don’t know what someone is feeling. When a human understands how they themselves are feeling, the horse responds well.”
“Twice a week we go to the horse barn, which is very therapy-related,” says one teenage resident suffering from anxiety. “We’ll talk about how the horses influence our emotions, and it can really calm you down to be around the horses and communicating with the horse nonverbally.” She adds that her favorite horse is Leo, a 6-year-old bay-colored Appendix American Quarter Horse. “Leo is very calm, and when we do exercises together it’s almost like they are listening to us. It definitely feels like they understand us.”
Another teenage resident suffering from depression says she loves the chickens, which the residents help feed and get into their coop at night. “We care for them. We feed them, we keep them warm, we get them in their house at night, we also collect their eggs,” she says. “If you’re quiet enough or moving softly enough or if you’re feeding them, they’ll get closer to you and don’t mind if you hold or pet them. It feels rewarding to win the trust of a vulnerable animal like that.”
Teaching children how to read
Chloë helps children learn to read at the Portsmouth Public Library. As the kids read out loud, her presence helps reduce their anxiety, increases social support and is a source of motivation. Photo by Laura Horwood-Benton
On a recent Saturday in December, about a dozen kids, ranging in age from 6 to 10, sat in a reading circle in the Children’s Room at the Portsmouth Public Library. One child read a few pages from “Captain Underpants.” Another read passages from a kids’ version of “The Hobbit.”
Their main audience? Desey and Chloë, two friendly golden retrievers, who laid in the middle of the kids getting pet by little hands and seeming to listen intently. It was a special treat to have two dogs, since Desey is moving away and Chloë will be taking over as the library’s regular reading dog.
In 2016, a team of researchers from the University of London reviewed previous research on children reading to dogs. It found that dogs can improve children’s reading by increasing the amount of social support, reducing anxiety and acting as motivation. Studies of specific programs, such as R.E.A.D. in Salt Lake City, have shown children’s reading levels can improve by two to four grade levels by regularly reading to dogs.
Michael Traister, a lawyer from New Castle and Chloë’s handler, says for kids without dogs, visiting the dog at the library is a reward they can look forward to. There are other advantages as well. “Some kids start out scared of dogs too,” says Traister. “One parent told me Desey and Chloë were the only dogs that their kid could be around because they’re quiet and gentle and don’t bark. Hopefully it’ll help them get over their fear.”
Of course, volunteer animals bring their de-stressing abilities to other contexts too. Therapy dogs, certified through one of the big national organizations such as Pet Partners, which provides certification courses for handlers and their partner animals, are regular guests on college campuses like Dartmouth and UNH, where they provide some fun for stressed-out students during finals.
There is some evidence to justify the trouble of bringing therapy dogs to campus. One study from 2016 found that having dogs on campus the week before finals lowered students’ perceived (self-reported) stress levels.
There’s even evidence that therapy dogs can reduce our experience of pain. One study published in the Pain Medicine Journal split participants into two groups. One group waited in a waiting area with a therapy dog present before their appointments; the other did not have access to the dog. Twenty-three percent of patients in the dog group reported a decrease in pain, while only 4 percent in the non-dog group did. The patients in the dog group also reported less emotional distress.
Traister, who suffers from a chronic pain condition himself, says that it’s no surprise animals can reduce pain. “Dogs are almost medicinal. It takes you out of yourself. There’s no great wisdom there, we’ve known that for thousands of years. Spending time with animals provides a bit of Zen.”
Retiree Marilyn Bachman makes weekly trips with her ragdoll cat Lunar to nursing homes and hospice centers in towns including Bedford, Manchester and Merrimack, where she visits individuals and their families.
“The volunteer work is very rewarding,” says Bachman. “Giving to the community — to people that are in their last days or moments in passing. The families are also so appreciative of having an animal come and give them any kind of comfort.”
She says that clients may spot her orange-and-white cat and come over to pet him. She brings a baby brush so they can brush him and improve occupational therapy skills as well.
“Last week I was with a client who was near the end. We had visited her previously for many weeks and she was asleep,” she says. “This particular day, I reached out for her hand and helped her stroke Lunar, and she actually made facial expressions and moved her fingers. That was pretty astonishing.”
Videos of goat yoga at Jenness Farm went viral earlier this year. Read more about it here. Courtesy photo
In a more lighthearted context, goats have been crashing yoga sessions at Jenness Farm in Nottingham. Taking place in the spring and summer months, goat yoga is exactly what it sounds like — a regular yoga class, but with seven mischievous Nigerian dwarf goats who approach participants for a cuddle or to jump on their backs.
“First and foremost, the whole class is for fun,” says Amanda Stanley, a yoga instructor from Dover who taught classes last season. “Of course, the yoga is a part of it, but it’s about doing as much or little yoga as you’re comfortable with and what feels good on your body.”
“People will stop in a pose and pet a goat. Or come out of something and snuggle with one. Often a goat will jump on top of people or take a nap on someone’s mat,” she says.
She adds that the goats dissolve any self-consciousness people might bring with them into class. Because everyone is having so much fun with the goats, they’re not focused on what their yoga looks like or if they’re getting it right. The class was so popular that people were waitlisted for weeks. “They bring a calming and fun energy,” says Stanley. “It’s so wonderful to be involved with these joyful creatures that are so sweet. It’s so nice to have animals around to make you laugh and smile and pull attention away from yourself.”
Lilly the Hero Dog
Photo by Kaylee Greer of Dog Breath Photography
Lilly the pit bull wears the red cape and mask of a superhero because she is one. No, she can’t fly or shoot lasers from her eyes, but she certainly has the life-saving part of the job down pat.
A few years back, Lilly’s human companion, Christine Spain, collapsed unconscious on train tracks in Shirley, Massachusetts. As a train barreled down on them both, Spain still hadn’t woken up. The train’s engineer later told first responders that he saw Lilly pulling Spain off of the tracks as he tried to stop the train. He couldn’t, and was convinced that they’d both been struck. In fact, Lilly had managed to save Spain, but suffered severe injuries in the process. Thanks to the work of the team at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, Lilly survived, though she lost her front right leg and now has steel plates to repair her pelvis and support her left leg. At the time, it wasn’t clear if she would ever regain the strength to walk on her own again. However, photographer Kaylee Greer of Dog Breath Photography says that it hasn’t slowed Lilly down one bit. “Today, Lilly is the happiest, sweetest and most vibrant dog you’ll ever meet,” she says. “And boy, does she ever walk! Hops, skips and bounds is quite a bit more like it.” We suspect she might be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound like a certain other red-caped superhero, but we haven’t confirmed that yet.
This month's cover
So how did Lilly wind up on the cover? Greer, who’s originally from Salem, New Hampshire, supplied the photo for our inaugural pet cover back in 2016. That year was all about rescued animals, with the cover line “Rescue Me.” This year, we decided to flip that title and write about animals who help people. We thought, why not call it “Pets to the Rescue” and put a cape on a dog? We got back in touch with Greer, thinking she might have something up her sleeve, and there was Lilly on the Dog Breath website in all her caped glory. It was almost too perfect. Then Greer shared Lilly’s tale with us, and the cover was done. It might be the first time in New Hampshire Magazine history that the cover was finished before anything else in the issue.
You can read more about Lilly and Spain’s story at lillytheheropitbull.com, where you can also learn about Lilly’s Fund. Donations to the fund support efforts to educate the public about pit bulls, fund local pit bull rescues, help specific dogs and many other worthy pursuits. You can also keep up with Lilly, her family and Lilly’s Fund on Facebook.
Humans of War & Horses of Peace
The horse was once a beast of war, valiantly (or reluctantly) carrying men and munitions into the most deadly places on the planet. Now, for the most part, they are retired from that dire task. Were that only true of men and women too.
But the horrors of war are all too real, and not only for those still fighting in far-off lands. For far too many veterans, the war came home in the form of disabilities or psychological traumas — daily reminders of the depths of what people are capable of doing to one another. By some estimates, nearly half of the 2.5 million military personnel who have returned from war zones since 9/11 suffer with physical and psychological issues. Meanwhile, slaughter auctions and rescues are filled with discarded horses, most still in their prime with years of heart and soul to give.
The Human-Horse Initiative is a collaborative effort to create a equine-facilitated psychotherapy and learning center for both underserved and marginalized veterans and unwanted, discarded horses.
Teresa Paradis of Chichester’s Live and Let Live Farm and former Navy SEAL, equine facilitated psychotherapist and professional educator Dave Ferruolo are leading the effort to create a sustainable Human-Horse Healing Center that will be situated at the nonprofit Live and Let Live Farm providing no-cost, equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning to veterans, active military and their families.
Longer-term plans are to offer for-profit equine psychotherapy and learning programs and opportunities. The center will be staffed by mental health clinicians and professional equine educators. Internships and learning opportunities for college students will be offered and the hope is to research the efficacy and outcomes of human-horse programs, and share what is learned with the world.
About the Author
Tiffanie Wen is an award-winning writer, journalist and columnist for the BBC whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Daily Beast, Guernica and others. She penned this month’s cover story “Pets to the Rescue” while taking breaks to pet her dog Benny, who has lived with her in Kenya and Israel, but prefers the snowy winters of New England.
She currently splits her time between California and West Lebanon, New Hampshire, where she lives with her husband Roy. When she’s not writing, she’s traveling the world and looking for her next story. Connect with her on Twitter.
Read more of Wen's work for New Hampshire Magazine in "The Communal Charms of Contra Dancing," a look at Hanover institution Lou's Restaurant & Bakery and a piece on forest bathing.
About the Cover Photographer
Kaylee Greer of Dog Breath Photography is an internationally recognized private and commercial pet photographer. She’s traveled the world teaching pet photography workshops and has seen her work published in many major industry editorial titles. Her images grace calendar lines, greeting cards, products, packaging and advertising campaigns throughout the commercial pet industry.
Her photographic style is drawn directly from the inspiration she finds inside the soul of a dog. She is fueled by the joy, whimsy and unrelenting happiness that is so uniquely canine. Read more about her on her website.