Savannah is a hit at Serenity Haven 2009.10.07

Written by David Green.

A special guest at Serenity Haven has proven to be a popular visitor. In fact, says staff member Nick Garver, the response was a unamimous “paws up.”

Recovery Services of Northwest Ohio—the agency that oversees the women’s residential addiction treatment program at Serenity Haven west of Fayette—recently began utilizing a new therapeutic tool called animal-assisted therapy (AAL).

“Animal-assisted therapy is becoming a much more commonly and widely used component of treatment not only for addiction and mental health but for an array of illnesses,” Garver said.

AAT has been found to improve social, emotional, physical and cognitive abilities in patients in a variety of settings.

“There has been evidence that AAT can prompt a marked lowering of blood pressure, decrease depression, improve interaction between peers and with staff, improve self-esteem, aid in short- or long-term memory, decrease anxiety and lower risk for heart attack or stroke,” Garver said.

Garver has a good a connection to AAT services—his mother, Barb, is a certified handler.

Over the summer, Serenity Haven was visited by Barb and her buff-colored American cocker spaniel Savannah, a certified therapy dog.

All of the residents at Serenity Haven had an opportunity to visit with Savannah—to pet her, hold her if they desired, “talk” with her and generally interact with the four-footed guest.

“The ladies spent about an hour visiting, and the response was a unanimous ‘paws up!’” Garver said.

Garver, a community support specialist with Recovery Services, said  the benefits from the visit went beyond the general enjoyment of spending time with a pet.

“Some women reported noticing a definite change in their mood during and immediately following the visit,” he said. “The voiced responses of the women in attendance were significant, but the observed responses were far more profound.

“Individuals known to be more stern and less expressive were on the floor talking, interacting and laughing. Individuals who are known to be more withdrawn were more assertive and seemed to be drawn out in order to be a part of the event.”

In addition to spending time with Savannah, the women had an opportunity to speak with Barb about how she and Savannah became certified and to ask about other facilities they’ve visited.

The duo’s certification was obtained through Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer organization that educates, tests and registers dogs (and their human counterparts) to visit hospitals, long-term care facilities and other like environments.

Savannah was required to meet several criteria to earn her certification including passing the AKC Canine Good Citizen test and showing appropriate behavior around individuals with special needs and who utilize special equipment such as an IV pole or a wheelchair.

“I knew almost from the time we got her that Savannah could be a good therapy dog,” Barb said. “She has a gentle, sweet disposition and just loves everyone.”

She said Savannah completed all the requirements for certification very successfully and and the animal seems to take her responsibility seriously.

“It’s like she knows she has an important job to do when we get to a visit,” Barb said. “She is loving and sweet like always, but she gets very focused and appears to know that the people we’re seeing need to be treated with care.”

Barb and Savannah have visited a few other facilities in addition to Serenity Haven and the response has been very encouraging. The two are becoming a familiar site at several nursing homes and care facilities.

“We’re hoping to set up another visit this month at Serenity Haven,” Garver said.

Residents will have to patiently await their canine friend’s next appearance because Barb and Savannah travel on a volunteer basis, and Barb has a “regular” job, as well.

Word continues to spread about their availability and Savannah’s social calendar is filling up.

This is a pooch that really gets around.

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