People with brain injuries benefit from furry friends on Cornelius farm

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Amanda Smith-Litwinczuk of Forest Grove, 29, hugs Flynn the black labrador during a Bridge to Independence meeting for brain-injured people in Cornelius Saturday. A black, furry tail keeping a steady beat on a carpeted floor meant only one thing last Thursday: Flynn was in the house.

The Labrador retriever and his owner, Hillsboro resident Erin Hammond, trekked to a farm outside Cornelius over the weekend to make a difference in the lives of survivors of traumatic brain injuries as part of Bridge to Independence (BTI), a day program of Homeward Bound.

“Thank you, thank you,” 29-year-old Amanda Smith-Litwinczuk of Forest Grove repeated as she rose from her seat to greet the dog, then petted and hugged him.

Kevin Goff, who works part-time at a doggie day-care center in Gresham, confidently ruffled the dog’s ears. And Jason Urenia smiled as he recognized Flynn to be a duck-hunting dog, like one his uncle had. He was interested in the dog’s identification tattoo, located inside his ear.

Some reactions to Flynn took more time and their outcomes were uncertain, as one BTI client kept his headphones on and only gazed at the dog.

“Therapy dogs can help clients assess external cues and safety issues,” said Maria Callahan, program assistant at BTI, a Molalla resident who planned Flynn’s visit. She believes the animals can interact with clients on practical levels as well as emotional ones as they begin to recover from strokes, car accidents or falls.

Victoria Eaton, an occupational therapist from Forest Grove, backed up Callahan’s theory.

“In the past, we had a cat that lived at the facility. Jasper would curl up with participants who experience frequent seizures, or sit by them if they were having a bad day,” said Eaton. “Unfortunately, Jasper didn’t come home one night and the clients have really missed her.”

Flynn and Hammond visited as part of the DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital’s recent collaboration with Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB): Portland Area Canine Therapy Teams (PACTT). They’re among 14 teams who visit homeless shelters, senior living facilities, rehabilitation centers and hospitals each month.

PACTT dogs are bred and trained as guide dogs but retire or change careers for various reasons, explained Kathy Loter, animal assisted therapy program coordinator at DoveLewis. Some of them, like Flynn, become therapy dogs.

Callahan said animals already on the property — including chickens, a llama called Lloyd, and Tripod, a three-legged goat — are less interactive than a dog, especially a trained therapy dog.

Hammond had her first encounter with a therapy dog when her mother had to undergo a dangerous and lengthy surgery, she said. Her family members sat together for hours at the hospital, saying nothing — just waiting — until into their midst, purely by accident, a therapy dog appeared with its handler.

The dog completely reversed the situation from one of tense silence to everyone getting out of their chairs, petting the dog and livening up.

“The interaction only lasted two minutes but it changed the environment in that waiting room from one of isolation to animated interaction that lasted beyond the dog’s brief visit,” said Hammond, who immediately became convinced of the benefits of therapy dogs.

Eaton noted how the presence of animals can evoke responses even from the most non-communicative person. Some clients lost their own animals due to their injuries, she said.

“The clients we work with have varied access to animals — some have pets, some live in settings where others have pets (such as assisted living facilities), but some have no access,” said Eaton. “We look forward to partnering with DoveLewis [by] integrating animal-based therapy within the therapeutic environment at BTI.”

How did Flynn’s visit go for brain-injured clients Feb. 20?

“Awesome!” said one, as the young man with the head phones removed them and ended the hour down on the floor with the dog.

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