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Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animals help people with spinal cord and brain injuries along the road to recovery.

While many of us primarily think of animals as fun, furry friends to play with, many therapists and spinal cord and brain injury patients at Shepherd Center consider them important members of the therapy team.

Just ask Kellie Cosby, an animal-assisted therapy provider and owner of Cosby’s Therapy Animals. Kellie, along with her late partner, Bill Reynolds, largely initiated an animal-assisted therapy program at Shepherd Center in 1991. Funded by generous donors, Shepherd’s animal-assisted therapy program pairs specially trained animals with spinal cord and brain injury patients to assist in their rehabilitation.

Animal-assisted therapy is effective because it disguises therapy as play, Kellie explains. It is enjoyable for both the patient and the animal – not to mention Shepherd’s employees, including therapists Kati Vines and Nate Schurman.

Therapists and patients see the animals every Wednesday, when Kellie brings her therapy dogs to the Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) and Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) units. Cosby’s Therapy Animals is an asset to these units because of Kellie’s vast knowledge of different breeds and their capabilities; the extensive training she provides her dogs from puppyhood throughout adulthood; and her outgoing and calming demeanor that brings out the best in both patient and dog, therapists say.

“Kellie makes everyone feel very comfortable,” says Kati Vines, a physical therapist in the SCI Unit. “She’s great at using the dogs to get someone who may be a bit timid at first to open up. Working with the dogs gives patients joy, and they look forward to seeing Kellie and her dogs each week.”

Kellie works closely with each therapist to match the right dog with the right patient to ensure each patient’s therapy goals are met. In the SCI Unit, for example, Kellie has patients groom the dog, play tug of war with him or walk the dog as they roll along in their wheelchair. These activities help patients improve balance, upper-arm endurance and range of motion.

In the ABI Unit, in addition to participating in the above-mentioned activities, patients also work on bolstering their speech and tactile stimulation by issuing commands to the dogs, petting them or visually tracking the dogs. Patients also experience a sense of calm when they are around the animals.

“Some ABI patients can demonstrate agitated behavior, which interferes with their ability to participate in structured therapy sessions,” says Nate Schurman, a recreation therapist in the ABI Unit. “After we pair them with the dog, they just completely relax. It’s awesome to see that change happen.”

Kellie enjoys seeing these positive changes happen, too, and is thrilled that she and her dogs can contribute to patients’ rehabilitation. “Shepherd Center is such an amazing place, where the doctors, therapists and other staff never give up on the patient,” Kellie says. “I’m honored to be part of the program after all of these years.”

She looks forward to serving Shepherd Center in the future and, in doing so, she says, honoring the legacy of her late partner, Bill, who also gave so much to the animal-assisted therapy program before he passed away in late 2011.

Written By Rachel Franco
Photography By Gary Meek

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.