For many hospital patients and residents of assisted-living facilities, medicine is not always what’s needed most. Sometimes, they just need something to smile about. And that’s where animal-assisted therapy can be a real benefit.

Linda Laun heads Wonderful Animals Giving Support (WAGS) Pet Therapy of Kentucky, Inc.

Animal-assisted therapy, also known as pet therapy, is recognized by those in the medical profession as a “growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Studies show that pet therapy pays serious benefits. Not only can it help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health, it can also release endorphins that produce a calming effect. A visit from a trained animal assistant can make people feel less tired and more optimistic. It gives them something pleasant to talk about, and leaves them looking forward to the next visit.

Linda Laun saw the benefits of pet therapy first-hand when she was a little girl and her ailing grandmother snuck out of the hospital to see her dog, Patsy, in the parking lot. She said that even though her grandmother was in great pain, her face lit up at the sight of her dog.

Linda Laun’s own dog, Henny Penny, is one of the 150 registered animals in use.

“When she was interacting with Patsy, she had a tiny piece of tranquility. It made a huge difference in her life,” Laun said. “I recognized the impact dogs can have on people. When I had time, I got more involved and started a therapy program.”

Today, Laun heads an organization that utilizes the human-animal bond to bring smiles to the faces of those who are mentally, physically or emotionally challenged. Wonderful Animals Giving Support (WAGS) Pet Therapy of Kentucky, Inc., works with 70 separate facilities in the Kentuckiana area, and has 150 registered animals at the ready, including Laun’s own Norwich Terrier, Henny Penny.

“I think there’s an innate connection between humans and animals,” she said. “Animals are non-threatening in terms of expectations of interactions. They’re not judgmental, so if your speech patterns are not perfect, they’re not going to correct you. Sometimes just the warmth of their bodies is comforting.”

WAGS (online at http://www.kywags.org/) has monthly membership meetings in which people can learn about having their own pets become part of the program. It has programs in place to visit nursing homes, assisted living homes, emotionally fragile individuals, people with autism, and even the prison system and schools. She said that kids who have trouble reading benefit from interacting with dogs, as well as those in prison, who earn a visit with a pet as a reward for good behavior.

Laun told a story of a motorcycle accident victim’s response when she and her dog visited him in the hospital. The man was unresponsive and had suffered brain trauma, and his parents were visibly upset at the prospect he would never be the same.

“I went in with my dog, and we were standing there, and he seemed to move his eyes,” she said. “I moved to the other side, and he did it again. I put the dog up high, and he followed it. It was the very first response to any stimuli, and began his path to being the person he was before the accident. It was pretty emotional.”

WAGS is a non-profit organization and has no paid staff. Pet owners volunteer their time and there is no charge for the services. Laun believes that pet lovers get great personal reward in sharing their animals with those in need.

“I think pets enrich our lives,” she said. “They have unconditional love. If you live by yourself, you’re coming home to an empty house. When you have a dog, you’re greeted every time you come home.”

WAGS isn’t just about dogs, though. Laun said. She has worked with cats, guinea pigs, a miniature horse, pot belly pigs and birds. And her office receives plenty of requests from all kinds of people.

“Our clients come to us because they have experienced pet therapy and saw the impact. Now they have a pet to share,” she said. “Some see us on the internet. Family members and workers in health field see the impact. Now it’s more recognized by the public as an alternative therapy. People have a nice dog and want to share.”

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