The rain stopped long enough on Halloween Eve for the fuzzy, four-footed parade of spooky creatures — lion, lobster, bat, spider and more — and their human companions.
On Oct. 30, the costumed therapy dogs of Pet Partners of the Oregon Coast took a stroll along the sidewalk outside of Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital and nearby Avamere Rehabilitation in Newport, to bring a bit of cheer to themselves and to those inside who were looking through the windows, smiling and waving.
For the past 20 years, hospital patients have benefited from the touch of a furry paw and the warm gaze of unconditional affection from the canines and other therapy animals. Because of COVID-19 safety precautions, the in-person visits have been halted, leaving the animals and humans alike feeling a bit bereft.
The purpose of animal-assisted therapy is to bring trained teams of various sorts of animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, rats, miniature pigs, llamas, alpacas, horses, donkeys and mini-horses, into people’s lives, explained Caroline Spark, executive director of the local Pet Partners.
“The presence of an animal has been shown to have therapeutic benefits on physiology and mental health. For the lonely, the sick, those struggling with life, it can make a huge difference,” she said.
Animals that are brought into the hospital to visit patients are assessed on several levels for appropriateness and trained for the task at hand.
“Pet Partners of the Oregon Coast is part of a national organization that has strict rules about visiting safely. Pets are washed before each visit. They are carefully evaluated before being allowed to visit. They are assessed and trained to behave calmly around people, to avoid causing injury or infection,” she said.
There is no one breed better suited to visit patients, Spark said.
“We look at temperamental aptitude as well as behavioral skills. We have found that this is something that can’t be trained, they must be born with it. Great Danes, terrier mixes, pit bulls, greyhounds – it doesn’t matter,” she said.
As with the animals, the animal’s human handler must also have the right temperament.
“Our members have to love to hang out, to listen to patients’ stories and memories,” Spark said.
The organization does more than just visit hospital patients in Newport and Lincoln City. They have visited the courthouse, assisted living facilities up and down the coast, the Rogue Brewery festival — they’ll go wherever they are invited. They have also visited the Toledo and Waldport libraries and local schools to interact with children through reading programs.
“Children feel less embarrassed when reading to a dog. It’s really beautiful. Dogs don’t shame or criticize, and kids gain confidence to try. But, it’s a bit more magical than just that. Something special happens when kids and dogs connect,” she said.
Pet Partners of the Oregon Coast welcomes new members, with or without a companion animal. They attend COVID-safe activities, and hold monthly virtual training and support meetings. For more information, contact Spark at 541-547-3793 or [email protected] You can also check them out on Facebook.