Michael Atzert has been a licensed physical therapy assistant (PTA) with South Brunswick's Jersey Physical Therapy for seven years. He’s also a dog owner with a special love for Airedale terriers.
Recently, with an eye toward its community service potential, Atzert decided to combine these two passions, putting his 6-month-old Airedale terrier, Kody, on a course toward becoming a certified therapy dog.
“It’s what I love (therapy and service) and it’s who I love (dogs and community),” Atzert said. “Kody brings such joy to my life – he makes me laugh every day – and I want to bring him to places like hospitals, children’s cancer wards, and here in the Jersey Physical Therapy offices … anywhere people need to be encouraged and cheered up.”
Animal therapy is a concept endorsed by researchers, physicians and within health care facilities across the U.S. for its ability help improve the health of patients both physically (e.g., lowers blood pressure, promotes relaxation and contributes to the release of calming endorphins) and mentally (e.g., lessens depression and loneliness, lowers anxiety and encourages communication).
“Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders,” states an article by the Mayo Clinic, which itself enlists the use of therapy dogs at its various U.S. campuses.
Not all dogs are cut out to be therapy dogs, however. The road toward certification can be long, and only dogs with calm, friendly temperaments can make it through the months of training and testing needed to achieve therapy dog certification.
Certification bodies exist across the country and include such organizations as American Kennel Club, the Delta Society Pet Partners Program and Therapy Dogs International, which was founded in New Jersey in 1976.
For Kody, the journey has just begun. Currently, Atzert is leading him through “intermediate school,” which is led by trainers at Heavenly Hounds in Lawrenceville, N.J. Then comes more advanced “adult dog training,” and if he passes and qualifies, Kody will then officially begin his therapy dog training at a school to be determined.
“It’s rigorous and competitive, but Kody’s doing very well,” said Atzert, who traveled throughout New England to find an Airedale pup with a temperament and lineage ideal for becoming a therapy dog. “It’s a difficult journey. He has to demonstrate that he can be calm and submissive whenever people approach and there are a lot of distractions around. Some dogs don’t make it through. They have to want it.”
Despite where the journey takes both Atzert and Kody, each have the full support of the owners of Jersey Physical Therapy – Marc Rubenstein, PT, DPT, OCS; Geoffrey Hunt, BS, PT, OCS; and Sean Moore, PT, MPT.
“All three of us are floored by the idea of pet therapy and wholeheartedly support his,” Rubenstein said. “We’re all about giving back to the communities within which we practice, and this is a tremendous way of doing this.”
South Brunswick natives Rubenstein and Hunt launched Jersey Physical Therapy on Route 27 in Kendall Park in 2002, before opening up another office on Tices Lane in East Brunswick four years later. Their newest site is located at 3 Liberty Street in the Plainsboro Medical Arts Building above the Princeton Medical Group.
--Jersey Physical Therapy