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Pet therapy at SARCC

sarcc pets

It was the equivalent of a “light bulb” moment. While visiting a children’s disability camp where therapy dogs were being used as helpers, Jenny Murphy-Shifflet felt those dogs could also help children who had been victims of trauma.

Murphy-Shifflet is the director of the Sexual Assault Resource and Counseling Center of Lebanon and Schuylkill counties, and her plan to use dogs to help the young clients of her center has created a “first” for Lebanon County; Animal Assisted Therapy for Trauma Survivors.

Animals used in therapy and to help trauma patients is not a totally new idea; as early as 1919, animal visitation programs existed in hospitals.

In the 1940s, animals were used to help World War II veterans, and in the early 60s, animals were used to help withdrawn children.

Murphy-Shifflet was certain the attributes of a therapy dog would be beneficial for children of trauma and sexual abuse. Initially, the animals provide a sense of safety, a fact borne out by numerous studies.

After investigating available pet therapy services, Murphy-Shifflet contacted KPETS of Lancaster to see if a connection could be made between their dogs and the center’s clients.

KPETS stands for “Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services” and the agency’s dogs work with seniors in long-term care facilities, with hospice patients, at-risk teens and with patients undergoing physical, occupational or cognitive therapy.

But working with sexually abused clients would be a new undertaking for the animals and their handlers.

What followed was a 40-hour course for the dogs’ handlers on issues of trauma as well as examining the positive impact the dogs could offer the children.

Karen Gerth is the founder and executive director of the Lancaster-based non-profit KPETS.

A program of working with survivors of sexual abuse will also be instituted in Lancaster County at the same time, Gerth said.

“One real benefit is that the dogs will distract them from what they are there for,” Gerth said. “It’s also important that the handlers received training to help them deal with this unique situation.”

In the business of helping people since 2002, in the past 13 years, Gerth has assembled 350 volunteer teams with more than 400 dogs registered as therapy dogs.

Canine therapy fills a real need in many people’s lives, Gerth said.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t get requests – and we need more volunteers,” Gerth said. “More places are finding out what we do and more folks are wanting help.”

The canine teams of KPETS help in several Pennsylvania counties and also go into Maryland.

“We help in so many areas; hospice, occupational, speech, and physical therapy, and working with children with autism, and special needs children,” Gerth said.

At SARCC, the counseling staff will select children from the caseload, looking for clients who might need the supplemental support of a therapy dog.

“We call them our furry therapists,” Murphy-Shifflet said. “A lot of the dogs primarily go to nursing homes and hospitals, so this is a new adventure for them.”

When the therapy starts in a few weeks, four dogs and four trainers will be coming to SARCC’s Cumberland Street facility about three times a month.

“The dogs will be here for about an hour and a half, because we don’t want them to be overwhelmed,” Murphy-Shifflet said.

Pets have the unique ability to make people feel safe and to offer unconditional love, she added.

“So it just makes sense for that to happen here,” Murphy-Shifflet said. “We’re excited to have them here. It’s a great collaboration between KPETS and SARCC.”

Dogs have also been placed in domestic violence shelters to make clients more comfortable, and dogs have recently been a part of the Lancaster Sexual Assault program, with very good results, she added.

“The dogs are seen as another option for survivors of sexual assault – and who can resist a tail-wagging, friendly dog?” Murphy-Shifflet asked. “When someone is traumatized and needs to feel safe enough to tell their story, with the dogs they feel that unconditional love coming back at them. We’re all starting to see the benefits of animal-assisted therapies.”

The dogs coming to SARCC have been oriented to the building, and will greet the children in the lobby. The kids will have the opportunity to do quiet activities with the dogs by their sides, like coloring, and they’ll also be able to read books to the dogs.

After the children have had some quality time with the therapy dogs, they’ll go into the counseling session, but only with their counselor. The dogs will not be in the actual session.

SARCC is also working with children at the Children’s Resource Center in Cornwall, through a collaboration with Pinnacle Health and WellSpan. At CRC, medical exams and forensic medical exams are conducted for victims of physical or sexual abuse.

“The next step is to take the dogs over there to ease the children’s fears if they feel anxious going into the exam,” Murphy-Shifflet said. “Having the dogs there brings their anxiety level down, gives them an opportunity to feel safer in this environment, and it helps knowing that this furry individual is open to hugs and petting.”

Folks entering the SARCC facility will be made aware that a dog is on the premises by a sign on the front door in case they have a fear of dogs or have animal allergies.

“That way, they’ll know that one of our canine therapists is on duty,” she said.

Those canine therapists are Holly, a Golden Retriever; Barkley, an Akita; Kody, a Golden Retriever; and Teddy, a mixed breed.

In KPETS, therapy dogs help in various situations, even being available for high school students taking their SATs, and for freshmen college students getting acclimated to a new world.

“They are very well received by the students because having the dogs there helps to relieve stress,” Gerth said.

That the dogs so enjoy interacting with everyone – anyone – is a significant part of their appeal.

“They touch lives,” Gerth said.

Funding for the canine therapy will come from a recent grant to SARCC from a Penn State Endowment Fund.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency recently approved $3.4 million in grant funding from the Endowment Act Fund, which was awarded to 44 entities throughout the Commonwealth that assist victims of child sexual abuse. Lebanon and Schuylkill counties SARCC was awarded $74,000 of that grant.

The money comes from penalties imposed on Pennsylvania State University by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, as a result of the 2012 conviction of former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

The animal therapy program holds great promise, Murphy-Shifflet believes.

“I’m hoping we receive additional funding to support this,” Murphy-Shifflet said.

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