Power of pet therapy now an integral part of senior care

When Arlene Sinanian shows up at a senior community with her therapy dog, Aiden, the 13-year-old Maltese senses he is going to work.

Sinanian calls him her “fiery guy,” one who took to pet therapy as a mere pup. He loves to stretch out on laps and have his long, white fur brushed. And he’s especially good with non-verbal people. Aiden just seems to bring out the voice of those whose thoughts are buried deep within.

Sinanian and Aiden are among the 300-plus Happy Tails Pet Therapy volunteers who visit senior care communities, hospitals, schools, libraries and other places around metro Atlanta. Pet handlers and their dogs, cats or bunnies show up for an hour visit, offering conversation and the opportunity to love on a friendly animal.

“Each animal gives us that one special something during their visit, and getting non-verbals to talk is Aiden’s. That’s his superpower,” Sinanian said.

Pet therapy has become an integral part of senior care, especially in nursing homes and communities with memory care services. The animals seem to calm those who are anxious, bring a smile to those who are agitated, and spark memories and stories about childhood pets from long ago.

"We could have dogs and cats here all day long and it wouldn't be enough," said Lisa Kiely, director of enrichment at Lenbrook, a senior retirement community in Atlanta.

“It can be difficult to articulate feelings, especially feelings of grief. The comfort by these animals is soothing and calming,” she said.

Pets also break down barriers. They provide a common interest among residents who wouldn’t otherwise get to know each other, and they become a bridge to reality for those lost in the fog of dementia.

“Sometimes we go in and everyone is sitting quietly, no one’s talking. Some slumped over and asleep, ” Sinanian says. “And by the time we leave it sounds like a cocktail party.”

Melissa Saul, owner and operator of CAREing Paws, visits many senior communities with her black English Lab, Annie. They're especially fond of visiting nursing homes where staff and residents have become like an extended family, she said.

Typically, they’ll go door to door, giving seniors who aren’t mobile the dignity of having visitors enter their rooms and stay for a while. Annie will offer a paw to shake or a high-five. And the residents are likely to offer her a dog treat, or a bit of bacon or sausage saved over from breakfast.

Saul said many of the older adults keep treats on hand specifically for these visits, or they’ll scrounge around looking for something to feed the dog.

The pet visits help to cheer up residents and staff who’ve had a troubling day. Death is a constant reality in nursing home care, and Saul said she has seen staff members bury their face in a dog’s fur and cry.

Pets can also be used to help seniors in rehab. Those who are reluctant to do exercises such as stretching or walking on their own will readily stretch to pet the dogs or walk them on a leash.

Saul started CAREing Paws in 2005. After doing pet therapy on her own for a year and seeing how great the need was, she reached out to other dog owners for help. The animals must pass pet therapy certification every year, and the handlers have to go through training, too.

The need is still great, especially at senior communities, senior centers and nursing homes. Happy Tails and CAREing Paws have long waiting lists of those who want the service, and also from clients who want additional time slots.

Volunteers are always needed. There is a commitment of training, grooming and time, but handlers say it’s worth it.

“It’s just a lovely thing to do. It’s a lovely thing to be a part of it,” Sinanian said.

It’s also a great job for the dogs, Saul said.

“They really do enjoy it,” she said. “Some are so tired afterward. They tend to take on all the emotions that everyone is going through.”


» There are several pet therapy organizations in metro Atlanta. Most dog breeds are accepted, and some also accept cats and rabbits.

» Each pet therapy organization has its own unique requirements, but basically pets must be up-to-date on vaccinations and health exams. Dogs should pass a basic obedience test, or pass a national pet therapy certification test. Passing the test requires working with a trainer who will prepare them for it.

» Handlers should also have the right temperament for visits and undergo training to work as a partner with their pet.

» Pets should be well-groomed before each visit.

» Most organizations require volunteers to make one or two pet therapy visits a month. Most volunteers do much more than that.