After being told her daughter would never walk again, Megan’s mother was surprised to see her take 10 steps toward Murphy, a therapeutic dog designated to help her.
“After 10 steps Murphy sat down,” said Denise Silcox, a clinical assistant professor from the UT Rio Grande Valley School of Rehabilitation Services and Counseling. “And Megan looked at the therapist and said, ‘I’m tired too’ and sat down. Nobody told the dog to do that; it was instinctual.”
The story of Megan and Murphy was one Silcox related during a presentation on animals and human health last Wednesday on the Edinburg campus as part of the university’s observance of Accessibility Awareness Month.
“They provide companionship, pleasurable activities, exercise, unconditional love, right, something to care for,” she said about animals. “They can be a partner. They group in to reduce loneliness, significantly lower blood pressure.”
Service animals can be trained to perform activities that will benefit a person with disabilities, yet they are not required to go through specific trainings, according to the American Psychological Association, Silcox said.
“They don’t have to go through a program,” she said. “They don’t have to pass any kind of certification test and, again, they did the law that way because who is going to do the certification? People that know about dogs may not know about disability and people who know disability may not know anything about dogs.”
There are state laws that make it a criminal offense to deny access to a service dog, also known as white cane rules, Silcox said.
“We have two in Texas,” she said. “We have the Human Resource Code 121, which makes it illegal to touch a service dog in an intent to get it out.”
The other was passed in 2013 when then Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed the Veterans and Bootz’s law, which requires public facilities and transportation carriers to admit a person with a disability accompanied by a service dog for assistance and also to admit a trainer of service dogs accompanied by a dog for training purposes, according to the Office of the Governor website.
“Bootz was a rat terrier who was a service dog for a veteran with [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Silcox said.
“He was denied access in San Antonio and petitioned and they passed a law that they called [Veterans and] Bootz’s law.” Offenses for those denying access to people with service dogs are punishable by fines of no more than $300 and 30 hours of community service, according to the governor’s website.
Service animals are not commonly used, Silcox said.
“Less than half of a percent have service animals because they don’t know what a service animal can do,” she said. “This is probably the biggest reason.”
Lack of knowledge about the legal rights of service dogs, non-acceptance of service dogs in the community, lack of funding and negative attitudes by family members are some of the other reasons Silcox said people don’t use service animals.
Animal therapy can involve any type of species, not just dogs, and is used in patient care, rehabilitation and in speech, education and recreation therapy, she said.
“Even animal therapy splits into two different things,” Silcox said. “There is animal-assisted activities. This is just a casual meet-and-greet thing, volunteering at a nursing home [or] taking them into school so kids can read to them. There’s no treatment goal, real reason for a visit.”
Animal assisted therapy can also be part of an actual treatment process, she said.
“It is delivered by a health-care professional using their license,” Silcox added. “It’s designed to promote improvement.”
Psychology sophomore and rehabilitation services minor Venessa Lopez attended the event and said the session was helpful for students interested in studying rehabilitation as well as others who might not know about animal therapy.
“I think it’s very helpful, especially for those that are in the rehab major,” Lopez said. “Since it’s my minor, I think it will be very helpful for me to know, for people that I know that have disabilities and impairments.”
Therapy dogs will visit the Brownsville campus from noon to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Main Building courtyard.