Pippin the therapy dog is headed to Oaklawn Physical Rehabilitation!

We recently sat down with Katy Smith, Occupational Therapist, to discuss physical rehabilitation at Oaklawn and how animal assisted therapy will be available to our patients.

First, let’s start with some details about your fur baby. How old and what kind of dog is he?

Pippin is 1.5 years old and he’s a golden retriever.

Did you get him strictly because you wanted to do pet therapy or was it after you adopted him and saw his disposition that you decided to pursue this?

I’ve always loved animals. In fact, I started at MSU in veterinary school. I found out that wasn’t a good fit for me, so then I switched to OT. I did some work with service dogs at Saginaw Correctional Facility and then took a clinical rotation in Albuquerque where I was doing animal assisted therapy for outpatient pediatrics. That’s actually where I ended up adopting him. I’m really happy that despite switching career paths, I was still able to find a way to incorporate animals into my career.

Did you know right away when you saw him that he was the dog for the job, or is the breed in general perfect for this and you’ve just molded him into a great therapy dog?

When you’re choosing a puppy that you want to be a therapy dog, you watch to see which dogs are more drawn to people versus toys or other dogs. You also test them with things like loud sounds to see how they react. The puppy that approaches those things are the ones that are good for therapy. He was different than any other dog I’ve adopted. I went in wanting a girl, but this little guy was attached to me right away. I haven’t had this kind of bond with a dog before. 

How have you seen animal assisted therapy benefit patients?

Patients participate more when there’s a dog and it’s a great modality for fostering engagement. Some of my patients are kids with more significant disabilities, and you can tell by the expression on their face that they love it. I once worked with a child who was in a wheelchair and Pippin was the only puppy that was mellow enough to sit on the tray and be hand-fed by the child. You could just tell that it was really special for the patient to be able to do something like that.

How do you use pet therapy as part of treatment?

In outpatient peds, one thing we work on is neuromuscular re-education. So, for example, we might have the child get on a scooter board in a prone position and use their hands to propel themselves across the floor. This can be hard work, but we can turn it into a game by having the child race down to feed the dog a treat. 

What offices does Pippin visit? 

Pippin is not currently seeing patients, but I take him to Albion and Marshall. Right now we’re strictly working on getting him acclimated to the spaces at Oaklawn, and he should be seeing patients soon! He will mostly be working with pediatric patients, but will see adults as well. 

Is animal assisted therapy a good fit for every patient? 

It’s not appropriate for everyone, so I’ll use my discretion to determine which patients Pippin will work with. However, even if he doesn’t work directly with a patient, there are still ways to involve him. For example, a child can put a treat into a little puzzle for Pippin, and then they get to see him excited to eat something they made. Activities like that add a special level of fulfillment for the child that they might not get otherwise.

What’s the most challenging and fun aspects of animal assisted therapy?

It’s really fun taking a dog out to public places and exposing them to new things, but it’s also really challenging and scary because little things can impact them forever! So we have to proceed with caution in order to make sure that every experience is a positive one.