Pet Therapy Is Not Just For The Dogs

By Paul Lonardo

For those who are not familiar with pet assisted therapy (PAT), or pet therapy, it is a willing and loving interaction between a credentialed family therapy pet, and a client, and the pet’s guardian as facilitator, with the purpose of achieving beneficial results such as, specific physical, social, cognitive, and emotional goals with patients. Studies have shown that physical contact with a pet provides many health benefits, such as lowering high blood pressure and improving survival rates for heart attack victims. There is also evidence that simply petting an animal can cause the release of endorphins, chemicals in the body that suppress the pain response and elevate mood.

The enjoyment of animals as companions dates back many centuries, perhaps even to prehistoric times. The first known therapeutic use of animals started in 9th century Belgium, where care for farm animals has long been an important part of assisted living programs designed for people with disabilities. Around the world today, pet therapy has become more formally applied in a variety of therapeutic settings, including schools, libraries and prisons, as well as hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, social services, mental health programs and outpatient care programs.

For Cynthia Vanaudenhove, her involvement in pet therapy began about 18 years ago when she fostered a dog from New England English Springer Spaniel Rescue. This dog, named Fallon, was her “springboard” into what she is doing now in the field of pet therapy.

Vanaudenhove adopted Fallon, and she knew right away from how people responded that there was something special about this springer spaniel.

“She was an amazing dog,” Vanaudenhove says. “Everyone loved her. She was a natural for pet therapy.”

So much so that Vanaudenhove started an independent pet therapy program at Zambarano Hospital in Burrillville. A friend who was a nurse at Zambarano first suggested that Fallon would be perfect for pet therapy and encouraged Vanaudenhove to give it a try.

“I didn’t know much about pet therapy and any formal training requirements at that time,” Vanaudenhove says. “But I knew the value of a relationship with a pet and Zambarano welcomed me with open arms, and Fallon was tremendous. I learned quite a lot from her.”

Things took off for Vanaudenhove and Fallon from there. This human-canine team grew so successfully and Vanaudenhove took on so many clients that it became overwhelming, even with Abigail, a second springer she began working with. In 2005 Vanaudenhove learned about the DJ Professional Pet Assisted Therapy Program at CCRI. It was developed and taught by a woman named Pearl Salloto. Vanaudenhove entered the program and graduated with her two springer spaniels.

“That made a huge difference in what I was offering,” Vanaudenhove says. “It was a marvelous experience. I learned more in Pearl’s classes than I think I ever could have learned in a lifetime of doing it on my own. From there I was able to construct a true professional PAT program, incorporating goals and goal assessment, as well as establishing my ethics and guidelines. I learned about safety and legal issues and so much more.”

Vanaudenhove and Salloto became close colleagues and friends, and Vanaudenhove was asked to come into the program to help teach. When Salloto retired in 2014, Vanaudenhove became the director of the DJ Professional Pet Assisted Therapy Program. Over the course of time, Vanaudenhove has observed how more and more people have come to understand what pet therapy is all about and the benefits that it can provide.

“Professionals are now coming to us, asking us to help them build their own programs for their clients by hiring a PAT team,” Vanaudenhove says. “Today, we have many professionals themselves coming into the DJ program who want to learn and incorporate what we teach and teach their own family pets into what they are doing. We have many retirees and people from all walks of life going through the program with their pets and realizing the joy of this profession.”

Once a team graduates from DJ program, that team is eligible for credentialing through Windwalker, a professional pet-assisted therapy organization that, among many other things, holds credentialed PAT teams to a high standard of practice and ethics including ensuring that pets are fully vaccinated and healthy. PAT teams carry liability insurance as well. The credentialing process is something that everyone has to go through every three years so that standards are maintained.

One notable change is that the DJ program is switching venues from CCRI to Providence College this fall semester. The curriculum is a three course certificate program. The first course, a twelve week program called Introduction to Pet Assisted Therapy, is for the human part of the team, without the pet.

“It’s very in-depth, with emphasis on education for the human,” Vanaudenhove says. “We find this is really valuable and so do the professionals that come to us. Then course two, for the human and their pet, and this is where we focus on becoming a safe, beneficial team, actually working hands-on in a facility with your pet. And you are learning from experienced PAT facilitators.”

This part of the training is all done at Elmhurst Rehab in Providence. The final part of the program, course three, is an internship period done alongside a mentor which involves twenty hours of pet-assisted therapy prior to credentialing.

“There’s a lot in this program,” Vanaudenhove says. “But when you come out the other side you and your pet are fully prepared. You know what to expect and you can present and provide a professional program to any school, library, healthcare facility, or other agency. The programs that our graduates offer are very much in demand. We tailor our programs to meet clients’ needs through bonding and interactions with our pets.”

Today, in addition to teaching, Vanaudenhove still runs several of her own private pet-therapy programs. She has three Spinger Spaniels, a nine year old named Guinevere and fifteen month old named Hero, both of whom are credentialed therapy dogs. She has a third dog, Robbie, a rescue who is a bit fearful and would not be happy as a therapy dog, but is still a wonderful, loving pet at home.

“The number one ethic in our program is our pets are family and are our first responsibility,” Vanaudenhove says. “We are their advocates, their guardians, and we always want to make sure their needs are met first when we practice PAT, and that they are happy and safe. A dog that doesn’t like doing therapy work is going to be stressed, and a dog that is stressed is unhappy and is not going to bring the benefit to the client that we are hoping for. Most importantly we believe this is simply unethical. Pets should love this work. Pet assisted therapy should be beneficial to the client and to the pet equally.”

One of several places you are sure to find Vanaudenhove is at Zambarano Hospital, where she and her dogs visit four times a month.

“It’s a wonderful experience there,” Vanaudenhove says. “It’s a very unique and wonderful place to work. A lot of what I do with my dogs is getting to know people and visiting those who can’t get out into the regular population for one reason or another. So we do room-to-room visits where Hero makes them feel very special. Guinevere and I meet in a common area room and our “friends” come to us. They can stay for as long as they want, and enjoy while we work on a myriad of things.”

The dogs encourage and motivate people to do physical and occupational therapy in a relaxed enjoyable way.

“They do many types of exercises, play memory and other games which can involve motor skills, hand eye coordination,” Vanaudenhove says. “Or a client can just sit and relax with my dogs by petting or brushing and enjoy spending time together. These folks think of my dogs as their own family which is very special.”

Dogs are the most common visiting therapy animals, but cats, horses, birds, rabbits, and other domestic pets can be involved as long as they are appropriately screened and trained.

For more information, contact Cynthia Vanaudenhove at or visit