Doggie Rehab: Are Dogs Man’s Best Friend for Wellness?

They say that a dog can improve family wellness, and no one knows this more than the Pryor family. 8-year-old Asheauna Pryor lights up when a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Lewis is around, often playing hide-and-seek with the canine’s favourite ball. But while it seems like it’s all fun and games, there’s a serious purpose to Asheauna’s weekly sessions with Lewis: to help her to move her arms and hands.

In the autumn of last year, US resident Asheauna began feeling weak on one side of her body. There was an abnormal growth on her spinal cord that was causing the weakness, which involved surgery. However, part of Asheauna’s spinal cord was damaged during the procedure, meaning that she was unable to move her arms and legs and needed help getting around in a wheelchair.

After this, Asheauna spent a month living at Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, a hospital that helps injured children and teenagers learn how to move again and how to perform activities that they need to do in everyday life. Learning how to move your arms and legs again is no small task, but the Institute prides itself on making the journey as much fun as possible through activities such as cooking lessons, and an unusual programme with four-legged friends.

The animal-assisted therapy programme is five months old, and involves bringing dogs into the hospital once a week to help kids improve skills such as grasping, throwing and moving their wheelchairs. According to Sherry Fisher, who heads the programme, kids who have pets at home get a special benefit from working with the dogs, as this ‘really helps them feel like they have a sense of home.’ Therapist Kaitlin MacDonald said Lewis has been a good match for Asheauna, noting, ‘Using the dog is such a motivator to get her to do the things we need to do every day and make it a little more fun for her.’

Before Lewis became a therapy dog, he and his owner had to complete two obedience classes and a six-week class at National Capital Therapy Dogs to make sure Lewis wasn’t too nervous or excitable. Then Fisher had to make sure he would work well with patients. She explained, ‘We assess the dogs as they come in and give them a try. If we see that maybe it’s not the best fit, we then make sure that there’s another place that they can come in and help us out.’

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