By Mariana Carvajal,
Karen Gardias never thought of training Bella, a Bernese Mountain puppy, as a therapy dog. But when she brought her to school one day during the summer, a counselor brought up the idea and Gardias, a music teacher at Davis High, was very interested.
“The more I read, the more I wanted to do it,” Gardias said as Bella lay calmly at her feet, resting her head on her paws. Students walked past and smiled at the sight of dog.
Gardias has noticed that Bella’s presence has a calming effect on both teachers and students. Students who often go to her classroom what they like to call “Bella time.” This is just one of the several benefits of animal-assisted therapy.
Evan Wight, director of marketing at the Pet Partners organization, explains that the human-animal bond is “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that positively influences the health and well-being of both.”
“There is an emerging body of research that shows there are numerous benefits from therapy animal visitation,” Wight said.
These benefits may include lowered blood pressure, a lower perception of pain, decreased stress and improved moods.
Like Gardias, Steve Stiert trains animals for therapy. Stiert, however, doesn’t own a dog, but prefers to train donkeys, instead.
Stiert became interested in training donkeys for animal-assisted therapy after his daughter went to University of Massachusetts and joined the Donkey Club.
“I started watching donkey videos and reading about them,” Stiert said. “I realized what wonderful animals donkeys are, and it struck me.”
He currently owns 10 miniature donkeys and two large standard ones.
Stiert believes bonding with donkeys can help improve human health in several manners.
“A donkey’s nature is to be calm and think about things,” Stiert said. “They are wired differently [than horses]. They spread out, kind of ponder things more and tend to be calm animals.”
Stiert explains that donkeys are “affectionate, tolerant and calm animals”, something that not everyone might understand.
Animal-assisted therapy has been proven to decrease stress in humans, Wight explained. This is why students at DHS enjoy Bella’s presence at school.
“[Bella] has a job: to give emotional support,” Gardias said, explaining that DHS isn’t a “dog daycare” and that Bella comes to the school for a specific reason.
Gardias hopes Bella will be certified to visit sick children at the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Sacramento by next spring.
But humans do not only benefit by interacting with pets, pets might also benefit by interacting with humans. Dr Boaz Arzi, a surgeon at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, personally believes this.
“For example, when you come home your dog jumps at you, so by all means the pet missed you,” Arzi said.
Animals often have strong bonds with their owners.
“We always hear that the owner dies or the soldier is killed and the dog is clearly very sad to understand what’s happened. They sometimes sleep next to the graves,” Arzi said.
“These things are happening, and the bond goes both ways,” he said.