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Students in the LSU College of Agriculture’s Residential College program took part in a pilot program offering animal-assisted therapy — or AAT — to area medical facilities.


LSU Ag Residential College pilots animal-assisted therapy program

Many professionals in the field of health care believe that animals can play an important role in therapy for patients with various medical conditions.

Students in the LSU College of Agriculture’s Residential College program had a chance to witness the practice first hand, as they took part in a pilot program offering animal-assisted therapy — or AAT — to area medical facilities.

Six students recently completed training to take part in the program, which culminated March 30 with a second visit to Ollie Steele Burden Manor, a Baton Rouge long-term care center and an affiliate of the Our Lady of the Lake system.

“The students and the residents loved it,” said Catherine Williams, Gerald A. Simmons Professor of Dairy Science with the LSU School of Animal Sciences and director of the LSU Ag Residential College program. “The visits went very well. Some of the residents remembered us from our first visit.”

AAT is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal — in this instance, a dog — is used as an integral part of the medical treatment process. AAT has been used to establish a human-animal bond and promote good health and the recovery of illness and some diseases. First documented in 1962, some of the benefits of AAT have been found in educational, physical, cognitive and psychological rehabilitations. It is used in operating rooms, intensive care units, pediatric centers and with psychiatric patients, particularly those diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. AAT has been found to decrease blood pressure during stressful activities in older hypertensive patients, to provide psychological benefits for children diagnosed with autism by helping to increase social behavior, as has been used in the rehabilitation of inmates.

The idea to institute the program within the LSU College of Agriculture’s Residential College came when Williams and Betsy Garrison, associate dean of the LSU College of Agriculture, wanted to create a signature activity for the residential college, a two-year “mini-campus” atmosphere offered to first-year students majoring in fields of study within the LSU College of Agriculture.

“Many of these students want to be veterinarians,” Garrison said. “A program such as this gets them involved with how animals can help people.”

Williams said that while the program was aimed at pre-veterinary students, any student within the Ag Residential College could take part.

While students showed interest in the project, Williams said, they still needed to be paired with dogs, which presented a problem.

“It was difficult because since the students live in a residence hall, they couldn’t have their own dogs there,” Williams said. “So, some of our faculty and staff volunteered our own dogs to take part. The good thing is that after the students complete the training and move out of the residential college, they’ll be able to train their own dogs and continue the program.”

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Williams said that Jennifer Laborde, her teaching assistant and a recent master’s graduate of LSU, took charge of the project after Williams asked her to organize contacts and schedule courses with the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine’s Tiger HATS animal therapy program, headed by Diane Sylvester.

“She is a godsend,” Williams said of Laborde. “She volunteered a lot of her time and effort to get this program up and running. Some of the dogs in the program are hers. It took her a semester to get all of the contacts lined up for the program. She’s put a lot of work into this.”

In January, an information session was held to inform students about the program. Topics included an introduction to AAT programs, selection of students and dogs and student involvement in the program. Interested students then filled out applications and questionnaires that were used in the selection process.

The initial group of participants consists of six carefully selected students, Williams said. Criteria included completion of an application and questionnaire, a minimum grade-point average of 3.25, reliability and compassion for animals and people.

While six students were chosen in the pilot program, hopes are that the total could expand to as many as 20 students in the future, Garrison said. Students, if they choose, may also register with the Delta Society at a cost of $75. However, registration is not required.

According to information on its Web site, the Delta Society is an organization dedicated to improving human health through therapy and service animals by working to increase awareness of the positive effects of animals, reduce the barriers that prevent the involvement of animals in everyday life and expand the therapeutic and service role of animals in health, service and education.

The LSU program — which follows the Delta Society’s requirements — covers steps for training, evaluation and the types of dogs. Training included twice-a-week, two-hour period classes taught by Sylvester, who is certified by the Delta Society to train in animal-assisted therapy. Topics covered pertained to preparing the animals for visits, identifying and decreasing stress in the animals, animal health and safety, special needs of patients, interacting with people, facility health and safety codes and patient confidentiality.

Evaluations also tested the handler and animal working as a team. These tests included the ability of the handler student to control the dog and the dog’s behavioral skills and simulating conditions that may occur during the visit and interaction with the evaluator.

As required by the Delta Society and health facilities, the dogs had to pass a physical exam, be current on vaccinations and be free of internal and external parasites.

Williams — who also earned certification through the Delta Society for the program —said goals include increasing the number of student participants, possibly lengthening the program to a full academic year and increasing awareness of the program.

“This has been an excellent educational opportunity for the students, in terms of a service they can do for the community with their animals as well as interacting with the residents,” Williams said. “Many of them have never been in a facility such as that, so it helps them to better relate to people in those situations.”

Garrison said student evaluations taken at the completion of the program will assist in improvement for future years.

Williams said that while the LSU AAT class will continue to visit Ollie Steele Burden Manor, there are other long-term care centers and hospitals in the area they could possibly visit in the future.

For more information on the animal-assisted therapy program at LSU, contact Williams at 225-578-4574 or at cwilliams@agcenter.lsu.edu.

For more information on the Delta Society, visit www.deltasociety.org.

For more information on the LSU Ag Residential College, visit the LSU Residential Life Web site at http://appl003.lsu.edu/slas/reslifeweb.nsf/index.

For more information on the LSU College of Agriculture, visit www.coa.lsu.edu.

Aaron Looney | Writer | Office of Communications & University Relations
April 2009