Therapy dog care and services suspended due to COVID-19

National Therapy Dog, Edgar. (Courtesy: Toni Selman)

Organizations including Orange County Animal Allies(OCAA), Animal Health Foundation(AHF) and Pet Partners closed therapy dog services amid the spread of COVID-19. Therapy dogs possess trained abilities to provide emotional care to an individual in difficult circumstances, however national organizations temporarily shut down those amenities for safety reasons.

Alleviations therapy dogs amend cover stress, anxiety and depression in different institutions like schools, hospitals and living facilities. Regulars who struggle with a mental illness or had routines seeing a certain therapy dog cannot visit these establishments due to the suspensions.

Since visits have been restricted, in place of in-person meetings, online visitations came to fruition. This adjustment would allow connections between therapy dogs and clients.

“As I’m sure you can imagine this has been a difficult time for the therapy dogs and their handlers,” said executive director of OCAA, Kevin Marlin. “In a time when they are needed most, we are shut out from doing much to provide comfort.”

“What we have been able to do is provide messaging on social media of our dogs and we have had teams come in via Zoom to see the clients and students they are used to visiting with. We have also allowed for our teams to  attend a socially distant visit where they kept themselves spaced apart, and stayed in a courtyard area where residents came to their balconies and windows to see the teams,” says Marlin.

He added that in order to comply with county, state and federal orders, all programs will continue to remain closed. This involved canceling nearly 100 visits in the past two months at dozens of facilities, schools and businesses. He said it is vital for the fragile health of clients that no visits take place until public health officials permit outside meetings.

“There is too much risk involved with having our volunteers enter a home, so we do not accommodate those requests and only visit with larger and known institutions and facilities,” said Marlin.

At this time, OCAA volunteers who come to hospitals and enter a home of a client would imperil their own health and also their surroundings.

“Although therapy animals cannot spread the virus, our volunteer should not be in the hospitals considering their current crisis situation and the handler’s putting their own health at risk as a volunteer,” said executive director of AHF, Pam Becker. “All therapy animals visits and visitor visits have been suspended until further notice. We anticipate it will be for at least six months and maybe a year.”

Marlin predicted the suspension will last until summer, though Becker supposed longer. OCCA and AHF do not want their volunteers and workers in an unsafe atmosphere. Before the pandemic, therapy dogs engaged in many facilities to assist children and regulars.

“Edgar current monthly visits include one assisted living facility, a special education class in an elementary school, a continuation high school, a Catholic high school and two other locations in Orange County,” said Saddleback College student and owner of therapy dog Edgar, Toni Selman. “He also subs in the Canine Literacy program as our schedule permits in elementary classrooms to help children become more self confident.”

According to Selman, therapy dogs are offered in certain schools to serve as a comfort tool. He mentioned that Edgar helped many children and adolescents calm down their stress levels in a tense environment or situation. Currently, its not possible for Edgar to visit these institution or the Saddleback College campus.

Since the lockdown became loosely enforced, therapy dogs do not have viable access to meet their clients and regulars in person. OCAA are using social media to maintain emotional bonds between the animals and their clients.

Many other organizations and institutions are dealing with the same accommodations like schools, nursing homes and hospitals. Online video services provides face to face social connections to maintain these relationships and routines.