How pet therapy can help stroke survivors

Working with therapy dogs can assist stroke survivors in their physical and cognitive recoveries and lift their spirits.

“People will think ‘Oh, I’ll brush the dog’ but really what they’re doing is their arm and hand exercises, says Karen Stalmann, who has been working with therapy dogs for 15 years.

Stalmann, who lives in Thornton, Colo., is a volunteer with a nearby Easterseals program. She visits rehab centers and brings her German shepherd to visit and cheer stroke survivors


“People do get to relax and get soothing relief from an animal,” Stalmann says.

Stalmann uses highway cones with poles to assist stroke survivors with balance exercises, there are ramp-walking exercises, support-and-aid exercises with stroke survivors and a therapy dog walking on thick mats, strength-training exercises, and cognitive exercises in which stroke survivors are asked the difference between a therapy dog and a stuffed toy dog that Stalmann brings along.

All the exercises are cleared by a stroke survivor’s physical therapist. And Stalmann is close by for every exercise.

She’s seen breakthroughs, too. Like when a stroke survivor, who was struggling with saying the letter “s” said the word “sit,” a command on a flashcard for a therapy dog.

Or when a stroke survivor proclaimed, “I can use my arm” after brushing a dog’s hair, using a brush with an elastic strap.

“Those little things are monumental things,” Stalmann says. “It’s a huge breakthrough.”

To find a pet therapy dog near you, Stalmann suggests visiting Alliance of Therapy Dogs or Pet Partners.

Before trying any type of exercises at home with a family pet and a stroke survivor, be sure to consult the stroke survivor’s physical therapist, Stalmann advises.

The last thing you want to do is to ask a stroke survivor do an exercise that would interfere with the work they are doing with a physical therapist.

“They can do things at home if their therapist gives them permission,” Stalmann says. “They have to make sure everything is done by direction.”

Once you have a physical therapist’s OK, always make sure there is someone there with the stroke survivor and the dog, even for simple exercises such as snapping an unsnapping a leash, tying and untying a bandana around a dog’s neck, or reading a book to a dog.

“Have another person hold the dog so the dog doesn’t escape or run at them,” Stalmann advises. “Because safety, safety, safety.”


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