Health & Wellness

'An inspiration': Dogs with special needs help kids heal in physical therapy

When little bodies and spirits need to heal, a dog can do wonders — especially one that knows all about overcoming challenges.

Kids who undergo intensive therapy at Akron Children's Hospital in Ohio as they recover from serious accidents or surgeries get an extra dose of motivation thanks to furry helpers working alongside physical therapists.

Courtesy Akron Children's Hospital
Sophia Bevilacqua, 9, gets a boost from Handsome, a deaf therapy dog, during physical therapy sessions at Akron Children's Hospital.

Some of the dogs have special needs themselves, helping to inspire the young patients even more.

“I don’t think I would have been as motivated to do well,” Jack Lehman, a 15-year-old who had to relearn how to walk after a sudden illness, told TODAY.

“I saw a lot of kids there who just wouldn’t work unless there was a dog with them. They were a huge comforting presence… they were relatable to all of us in the hospital and an inspiration.”

Related: Service dog sticks by boy with autism's side, even in hospital bed

Courtesy Akron Children's Hospital
Jack Lehman, 15, worked with Gracie, a three-legged therapy dog, as he recovered at Akron Children's Hospital.

More than 70 canines take part in the hospital’s Doggie Brigade program, making bedside visits and cheering up sick children with wagging tails, friendly cuddles and unconditional love. Many hospitals have similar programs.

But only a select few dogs work in physical therapy, where kids re-learn how to walk and balance.

“It is rare to see dogs in therapy because not a lot of hospital pet visitation programs are aware of how much the dogs can assist with patient motivation,” said Sarah Brown, a physical therapist at Akron Children's.

Related: New therapy helping paralyzed kindergartner regain muscles and movement

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Therapy dogs bring joy, happiness back to kids at children's hospital

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The animals help in a couple of key ways: They can provide a fun distraction from a mundane task a patient is asked to complete; and they give emotional support, helping to calm down kids when they are upset or resting beside them for comfort as they are being stretched, she noted.

Chris Witschey, who has been volunteering for Doggie Brigade for 11 years, has four dogs in the program — her love for canines undaunted even after being bitten 13 times during a 30-year career as a UPS driver. Now retired, she adopts rescues other people may overlook.

All four of her canines work with kids in rehab at Akron Children's Hospital; three have handicaps of their own.

Related: Hospice therapy dog consoles dying woman

Courtesy Akron Children's Hospital
Sophia, who has cerebral palsy, watches Handsome during a session with physical therapist Sarah Brown.

Handsome, a 12-year old Australian shepherd-Rottweiler mix, is deaf. Witschey adopted him when he was a puppy and set out to teach him a few commands in American Sign Language. Today, he understands about 70 words, including basics like “sit,” “stay,” and “jump.” (He knows “cookie” really well, she said.)

Children are amazed when they find out he’s deaf.

“They can’t believe that a dog knows sign language. It just blows their mind,” Witschey noted. One teen wrote an essay about her experience that still makes Witschey choke up.

“She talked about being in this dark place with no way out, and then one day, she met the deaf dog. He just really opened her eyes — that if this dog was so happy and couldn’t care less about his disability and was cheering other people up, why couldn’t she?”

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Courtesy Akron Children's Hospital
Sophia and Handsome at Akron Children's Hospital.

Tank, a 12-year old black lab mix, had to have surgery on both his hind legs when he was 2 and has metal plates in his back knees. He went through rehab just like many of the kids he meets at the hospital.

When children who are stretched out in physical therapy sometimes cry out in pain, Tank will come over and nudge them with his nose as if to ask, “What’s wrong?” “He’ll stay right there in their face until they stop crying,” Witschey said.

Gracie, an 8-year-old Husky mix, has three legs. Nobody knows what happened to her, but Witschey suspects she was shot.

Courtesy Akron Children's Hospital
Gracie has three legs.

Kids who are trying to mend can relate. Jack, the 15 year old patient, met the dogs during a 77-day stay at the hospital. After developing acute disseminated encephalomyelitis — an inflammation in the brain and spinal cord — out of the blue in February, he was left temporarily paralyzed and had to relearn basic movement.

Courtesy Akron Children's Hospital
Jack works on his balance as Chris Witschey, right, and Gracie look on.

As he attended physical therapy, the dogs took part in exercises to help him walk and balance. He’d stand on a wobbly surface, reach for various treats and try to toss them to the dogs without losing his balance. He might have to walk fast enough to keep up with the canines, or finish his exercises in order for the dogs to get a treat.

“The therapists were very friendly, but having a dog with that unconditional love and affection they have for everybody — that really helped,” Lehman, who is now walking and back home, said.

He believes the dogs helped him heal faster.

Witschey is not surprised. She’s seen kids who won’t respond to the therapist, but will do anything they’re asked if the dogs are around. She’s already training a blind puppy for the program and hopes more people will adopt more special needs dogs.

“They’re awesome. Every one of them is awesome,” she said.

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