When the four-legged therapist enters the room, the children at the Milwaukee Center for Independence Wells Street Academy perk right up. Their eyes shine a bit brighter, their hands reach out to greet him, and their faces light up with smiles.
"Look who's here!" says their teacher, Cathy Wolber. "It's Yoshi!"
And the therapy session begins.
Yoshi is a 7-year-old miniature Labradoodle that has been specially trained to work as a therapy dog for Health Heelers, an animal-assisted therapy service based in Menomonee Falls. He and his owner, Krista Borowski, are frequent visitors to the Wells Street Academy classroom.
"He knows when he's coming to work," said Borowski. "I do think he really enjoys kids."
Wolber said she and Health Heelers owner, Laura Hey, set "fairly basic goals" for animal therapy for her students, all of whom have complex medical conditions. For some children, especially those who are not able to see, the first goal is simply for them to acknowledge that the therapy dog is present. The next step is interaction with Yoshi.
"With the kids, we always have goals in mind," said Hey. "The turn of a head, opening eyes, maybe decreasing tone for children who are always tense, to get their arms extended so their muscles relax."
Hey, who holds degrees in both occupational therapy and animal-assisted therapy, said she started her therapeutic career working with adults in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living and neuro-rehabilitation facilities. She launched Health Heelers in 2005, and now the organization includes about 50 dogs and their handlers.
She noted that more research is now being done on the therapeutic value of the human/animal bond for physical health and emotional well-being.
"I always felt that, but to have it validated by science and research is icing on the cake," Hey said.
Hey's Health Heelers helps health care, academic, social services and other facilities set up programs where therapy animals are incorporated into treatment.
"The therapy animal is kind of a co-therapist in a structured session," Hey said.
To do this effectively, Hey said, both dogs and their owners or handlers must complete extensive training and achieve Pet Partners certification.
She noted that not every dog that is friendly is necessarily a good therapy dog. The dog must have a foundation of basic obedience skills and an "exceedingly social" personality. The dogs must be able to engage with people and maintain that engagement over a period of time with stranger after stranger and in new environments, Hey said. They must also be comfortable with people who might not be able to pet them gently.
Health Heeler dogs have worked with young people who have emotional challenges, working on character development, appropriate communication and boundary-setting.
"The dogs have to have a lot of confidence, obedience and have safe behavior," she said. The dog and its owner receive additional training that pertains specifically to the setting in which they will be working.
"I want the dogs to love their job," she said, "and they do."
It seems the therapy horses at LifeStriders in Waukesha feel the same way. LifeStriders' Operations Director Chrystal Schipper said carefully chosen and trained horses help bring physical and emotional healing to children and adults with a variety of issues. Clients include children with behavioral, cognitive, physical or emotional disabilities as well as challenges in relationships.
"You see phenomenal results and they're undeniable," Schipper said.
Like Health Heelers, LifeStriders serves children as well as adults of all ages. Each client has an initial evaluation to see if they would benefit most from therapeutic riding in a group setting or hippotherapy, which is horse-assisted therapy using one-on-one instruction with an occupational or physical therapist, speech/language pathologist or their assistants.
Schipper said when a child is riding a horse, their brains are stimulated as all four quadrants of their bodies are being worked out.
"Once you sit on a horse, every movement of the horse makes the upper body have to balance," she said. "For every rider we see, we have two trained sidewalkers and leaders, and they may have to hold the rider up at the beginning."
Over time, the child develops increased core strength, Schipper said, which affects many other motor functions. A therapy horse can also help children work on sequencing, fine and gross motor skills, spatial awareness, speech, recognizing colors and numbers, and sensory integration.
Just as therapy dogs must have certain qualities, therapy horses also need to have a temperament that is compatible with the work.
"The horses we have in the program usually are mid- to older life, they've been around the block and have seen a little more, but are still physically sound," Schipper said. "It' about one of a 1,000 horses that have the personality for this."
She added that the horses seem to sense that the child needs them to be patient. One of LifeStriders' horses is a former polo pony that was being ridden by a child who had an apparent seizure, collapsing on the horse's neck. Schipper said the horse just stopped and "never once moved a muscle" until the child was taken off its back and was safe.
LifeStriders and Health Heelers are two of only a few animal therapy organizations in the Milwaukee area. But as more research is done on the the physical and mental benefits animals can provide, the field is expected to grow.
Animal-assisted therapy can be beneficial for children who have both physical and emotional pain, according to the American Humane Association.
Some of the most exciting benefits, said Schipper, are the social skills and emotional connections that come as a result of the child working with the horse.
"It takes a lot to get on a 1,000-pound horse," she said. "There's a lot of trust that can be gained from getting on that animal. I appreciate all animal-assisted therapies, but it's hard to match.
"It's nothing short of a miracle when you see that sort of thing."■
5 ways animals help kids with special needs
1. Focus attention. Children notice when the therapy animal is present and acknowledge the animal is there.
2. Strengthen core stability. Hippotherapy — use of horseback riding — helps children improve posture, balance and coordination.
3. Muscle relaxation. This especially benefits children with muscle spasms.
4. Improve communication skills, including speech. Research has show that autistic children can learn the skill of assertion through interaction with dogs.
5. Improve fine and gross motor skills. From petting to brushing, simple interactions can improve these skills.
Nan Bialek is a Milwaukee freelance writer who works with the Milwaukee Center for Independence.