Illustration by Riley Scott

Healing Hands, Hooves and Paws


Animal-assisted therapy provides healing and happiness despite financial cost

Alexis Eichelberger / Culture Editor

To Rinda Scoggan, her standard poodle Buddy has always been smart.

He was easy to train and has a good, calm temperament. He’s what Scoggan called a “people dog.” During their visits to the dog park, he is typically more interested in meeting the owners than he is the other dogs.

When Scoggan, now a senior counselor at Ohio University Counseling and Psychological Services, worked in an all-male correctional facility, she sometimes brought Buddy to work with her. She found that the men she spoke with seemed to do better during their sessions when Buddy was there.

Those observations piqued her interests in the therapeutic help animals can provide to people, and she began researching what it would take to get Buddy officially certified as a therapy dog. When she began working at Marietta College, she proposed the official certification process to her supervisors, who encouraged her to go forward with the training so Buddy could join her on campus.

Now, Buddy comes to “work” at OU approximately once a week. He accompanies Scoggan during each of her counseling sessions on those days, acting as a comforting presence in whatever way her clients feel most comfortable with. Some pet him while they talk. Some allow him to lay at their feet or sit next to them. In any case, Buddy’s calming effect provides a loving and understanding presence that sometimes makes difficult conversations a little less challenging.

“Animals love you unconditionally,” Scoggan said. “They kind of have this sense of when you’re sad or when you’re upset or when you need a little bit of extra stuff. And they just love you unconditionally. They want you to pet them and hold them and it really doesn’t matter what else is going on.”



Last year, Scoggan began bringing her newly-trained dog, Dug, to work with her, too. The golden retriever has been a certified therapy dog for a year, and Scoggan hopes to begin bringing him to work more and eventually “retiring” Buddy. But until then, both dogs will continue to visit campus, accompanying Scoggan during her time in-office and providing comfort for other students in group sessions when discussing a traumatic event or during de-stress sessions facilitated by other campus organizations.

“There’s something about just the petting and the warm body of an animal that kind of relaxes,” Scoggan said. “They don’t ask you to perform. All a dog wants you to do is just pet them. That’s all you have to do.”

Animal-assisted therapy was conceptually developed in the 1960s, and though the idea was at first met with criticism, it has since grown drastically in use. Now, animals are used as agents of healing and comfort for people with a range of ailments and disabilities, including cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism and schizophrenia.

Despite its growth in popularity and acceptance, some financial hurdles often still stand in the way of those who wish to access and provide animal-assisted therapy. But to those who have seen the healing power of four-legged friends, the benefits are unmistakable.

Teaching to heal

As animal-assisted therapy has grown in practice, so have educational opportunities for those wishing to share it with others. This year marks the inaugural year of Hocking College’s animal-assisted therapy program, a two-year degree program that equips students with the skills to care for and facilitate healing through either horses or dogs.

Cynthia Conner, manager of the canine therapy program and kennel operations at Hocking College, said the school wanted to offer the program to give students hands-on training and experience working directly with animals. Conner said few colleges in Ohio and surrounding states offer animal-assisted therapy programs, and often students have to resort to studying online rather than learning through application.

The program’s first class will include about a dozen students, who will take courses in basic psychology, animal behavior and communication and obedience training, as well as some courses in pet grooming and emergency care. The certificate they will receive upon completion of the program will allow students to work with animals and people together, as well as in training animals to become certified for therapy purposes.

Conner, who began working with animals when she was a teenager and has experience in therapy, veterinary medicine and grooming, said animals can often have a very soothing effect on people and offer an outlet for emotional trauma. She said as more research has been conducted, it’s been found that people, especially children, often respond much better and are more comfortable around animals than they are with other people.

“Animals just have a calming effect,” Conner said. “If they’re calm and they’re loving, not very many people can say no to a dog that’s sitting there staring at you with their sad little eyes saying ‘Hi. I’m here to love you.’ That’s pretty much what all dogs feel if they’re trained properly and socialized well. What person can tell a dog, ‘no’?”

Cost of care

To those who have witnessed its impacts first-hand, animals have the potential of providing obvious health benefits. And luckily for them, OU students can spend time with Buddy and Dug free of charge. All services provided by Counseling and Psychological Services are free to students, along with the other campus programs that the dogs sometimes attend.

However, not all who seek out animal-assisted therapy have that same luxury. The cost of animal-assisted therapy often varies depending on the animal and the providing organization, but it can climb to hundreds of dollars per session. The National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy, a prominent provider of horse-assisted therapy in California, calculates that each session costs between $115 and $300.

In many cases, animal-assisted therapy, and other similar therapies such as art or dance therapy, is not covered by health insurance. A study published by the Interactive Autism Network in 2011 found that out of 8,000 families surveyed, only 12 percent reported that insurance covered some or all of the costs for animal-assisted therapy provided to their children with autism.

Daniel Skinner, an assistant professor of health policy, explained that when animals are used for medicinal purposes as therapy animals are, they become much more than a pet in the eyes of the law and insurance providers. Of course, different health insurance plans provide for different treatments. But the challenge when trying to persuade an insurance provider to provide for a treatment is concretely demonstrating efficacy.

“A lot of times it has to do with clinical evidence,” Skinner said. “So, a therapy dog or a therapy animal of some sort may not have any clinical tests beneath it in terms of randomized trials or the concepts that insurance companies typically use to say, ‘Yes, we’ll fund that.’ ”

In addition to demonstrating a clear medical need for or benefit received from the therapy, it can also be a challenge to prove to insurance providers that the alternative therapy is worth the cost, as opposed to using a pharmaceutical or other clinically-backed treatment.

“There are all sorts of things that people want that they claim helps them,” Skinner said. “So it’s like this constant negotiation of trying to demonstrate efficacy.”

An honest remedy

Along with demonstrating effectiveness, insurance providers are additionally concerned with safety. Therefore, providers of animal-assisted therapy must also acquire insurance in the case that a client is injured during a session. The cost for that insurance can be “staggering,” Wayne Boyd said.

“I think they see on a different level than we do. I think when they look at you, they look at your soul. I honestly do.”Wayne Boyd

Boyd has loved and worked closely with animals since he was a child. He began training and rehabilitating stray dogs when he was only 9 years old, and later worked with exotic animals such as large cats, zebras, giraffes and more. When he moved to Athens, he delved into nonprofit work, and eventually he opened his own all-species rescue farm in Glouster called New Beginnings Animal Center.

The farm officially began operations in 2014. Boyd and his colleagues rescued and rehabilitated dogs, cats, horses and other animals, and helped many find new homes through adoption. Additionally, they used the animals to help others cope with disabilities and mental illnesses. Children with autism and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder would visit the farm and spend time with the animals or ride the horses, enjoying the calmness and refuge the time provided them free of charge.

Michele Summers, vice president of New Beginnings, joined Boyd in his venture and helped him start the rescue operation.

“I think we’ve both been rescuing animals most of our lives,” she said.

Summers can fondly recall one dog in particular who they knew when training would be a perfect fit for someone in need of a therapeutic assistant. The dog was adopted by a woman who works with children who have experienced some form of trauma recovering from their experiences, and she hoped to use the dog in her sessions.

Nonprofit groups like New Beginnings often do not charge those who seek their therapy services, countering the lack of insurance coverage those families often face. However, as Boyd noted, the costs of running such an operation can add up quickly. He believes more people would provide therapeutic experiences with animals if the costs of insurance, equipment, facilities and care were not so high.

Extenuating circumstances forced New Beginnings to close temporarily at the beginning of the year. But Boyd hopes to reopen soon, potentially by partnering with other therapy-oriented nonprofit groups, so he and his colleagues can continue to provide a free, fun and healing service to the area.

Animals, Boyd said, are honest in the purest sense. They cannot lie, judge or disrespect a person. They simply exist and live honest and loving existences, and that is what makes them such natural and powerful agents of healing.

“If the person means (an animal) no harm, they’ll relax instantly,” Boyd said. “It’s like they just know. I think they see on a different level than we do. I think when they look at you, they look at your soul. I honestly do.”

Development by: Megan Knapp / Digital Production Editor

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