By Michele C. Hollow of Pet News and Views
Twelve-year old Ally Gillen plans to be an occupational therapist when she grows up so she can help children just like her. For the first 10 years of her life, Ally was an active child who loved sports. Then almost overnight, her body shut down. Her muscles and organs stopped working.
Diagnosed with Juvenile Dermatomyositis, an extremely rare autoimmune connective tissue disease that effects one in one million children, Ally spent seven weeks at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. The key to her recovery were the dogs in the pet therapy program.
“She was so ill that she couldn’t lift her head off the pillow,” says Ally’s mom Heather Gillen. “When the occupational therapists would come into her room to get her to move, she would cry because it hurt so much. I wanted to yell ‘don’t touch my daughter.’”
Then one day, an occupational therapist brought in a therapy dog. “I missed my dog so much,” says Ally. (Ally was in the hospital from Halloween through Thanksgiving, her birthday, and Christmas.) “The dogs in the program really made me happy. The occupational therapist (OT) would place a dog on my shoulder so I could pet him. Then she would move the dog to my other shoulder or other part of my body. I would reach down and pet the dog.”
“I didn’t really think about petting the dog,” says Ally. “I was just so happy to have a dog nearby that I wanted to pet him.”
The dogs in the program had such a calming effect on Ally that she started to get better. Some of the therapists would bring in a therapy dog and a few sets of clothing. “By dressing the dogs, she used her motor skills,” says Heather.
Tic Tac Toe
A small dog with a tic tac toe set came in. The Os and Xs had to be Velcroed on the felt board the dog wore. Ally would play the game with her OT. Then a larger dog came in with a bigger tic tac toe set. Ally had to get on the floor for this game. “It got her moving,” says Heather.
“And one time for Christmas, the OT let me paint one of the bigger dog’s toenails,” adds Ally. “I would dress up the dogs in different outfits and then take them for walks around the hospital.”
After 49 days, Ally was wheelchair bound. She had to go back to Children’s on an outpatient basis. She continued to work with the dogs. “They would run ahead and I would follow them through tunnels,” says Ally.
Her mom adds, “She really liked being around the dogs, which meant getting her to go to the hospital was easy.”
On her return home, Ally wanted to train her dog, Angel, to be a therapy dog. Ally, Heather, and their seven-year old dog Angel, enrolled in the Delta Therapy Dog Certification program. Today, Heather is at Children’s every Tuesday with Angel. Angel even has her own trading card, which is part of a program at Children’s where patients can get cards with photos and stats about a particular therapy dog.
“Angel likes to play with people and loves the attention she gets at Children’s,” says Ally. “And Angel and I go to agility classes.”
“Dogs are a big part of my life and always will be. Now that all of this has happened, I’m going to get a degree in OT when I’m older. And I will train a few dogs to be therapy dogs.”
To watch a video of Ally, her parents, Angel, and the other therapy dogs, click here. If you watch, bring tissues!