TUPELO – Charlie’s coat is golden instead of white, but he’s helping patients at North Mississippi Medical Center’s Rehabilitation Institute.

The 10-year-old golden retriever and his owner Tricia Goldman are volunteering to help patients recovering from strokes, injuries and illness at the Rehab Institute once a week. Adding animals to therapy isn’t just a pleasant distraction for patients, said Dr. David Richmond, the institute’s medical director.

“It helps their mood and improves their participation in therapy” even when Charlie isn’t around, Richmond said. “It’s been shown to improve functional outcomes, especially after stroke.”

Jack Balty, a former Tupelo resident who now lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, has appreciated the time with Charlie as he works to recover from a stroke he suffered three weeks ago.

“Charlie can make anybody go faster,” Balty said. “These dogs are all heart, and they’re smart.”

Animal-assisted therapy is driven by specific goals and tasks for the patient, said occupational therapy assistant Terry Kendrick, who is also a Love on a Leash volunteer. For example, the therapists might encourage stroke patients to use a weakened arm to pet Charlie to strengthen the limb. Animal-assisted activities are more focused on recreation and visitation.

For patients who choose to opt in for the animal-assisted sessions, it’s often a welcome break from the routine.

“They don’t think of it as therapy,” Kendrick said. “They just think of it as loving on a dog.”

Charlie started training as a therapy dog as a puppy and recertifies every year, Goldman said. They both are registered with Love on a Leash, the local chapter of Comfort Creatures. The joy Charlie brings to people dealing with difficult circumstances is really gratifying, Goldman said.

“I can’t change their situation,” Goldman said. “But I can change 15 minutes.”

Charlie has been working with Rehab Institute patients for the past month, but the staff spent about a year creating the policies and procedures to incorporate therapy animals, said Jenni Rogers, clinical coordinator for the Rehab Institute.

Charlie has become quite popular on the unit, where patients come for intensive rehabilitation therapy.

“Their morale is higher,” said occupational therapy assistant Stefanie Melton.

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