Cherokee Nation therapy animals assist citizens
Cotton is a golden doodle that works with her handler, James Bywater, a licensed professional counselor, in the Cherokee Nation Behavioral Health department. She is a service dog and a certified therapy dog. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
The Cherokee Nation’s Animal-Assisted Therapy Program – which Cotton’s handler, James Bywater, helped write – requires animals wear a clearly identifiable service or therapy vest and a photo identification badge when working. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Unali, a golden retriever named after the Cherokee word for “friend,” is an emotional support dog for the Cherokee Nation’s Indian Child Welfare. She will receive additional training in the coming year to receive her therapy dog certification. BRITTNEY BENNETT/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Teenagers who are getting treatment at the Cherokee Nation’s Jack Brown Treatment Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, feed carrots to Ambrosia – one of three miniature horses donated to the CN to provide equine therapy to Native children at the center and Indian Child Welfare. WENDY BURTON/MUSKOGEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Whether helping a patient during counseling or comforting a child transitioning into a foster home, therapy animals in Cherokee Nation programs are assisting tribal citizens in ways people cannot.
“It’s a positive benefit to each of the programs, and if anybody is going to use an animal, a tribe should be the one to do it,” James Bywater, a CN Behavioral Health licensed professional counselor, said.
Bywater owns 2-year-old Cotton, a golden doodle that is certified as a service and therapy animal. She works with Bywater in his office every Thursday and Friday, assisting patients directly and indirectly as they work through topics such as death, addiction, rape and suicide.
“She’s really intuitive,” he said. “She doesn’t go and jump and want to roughhouse with someone who’s grieving. Matter of fact, she’ll go over and she’ll just rest her chin on their knee, and it helps to comfort them. Things that I don’t even pick up on, she’ll pick up on. She’s a perfect mirror to people. So if they’re anxious, if they’re angry, she’ll step back.”
Bywater began researching the benefits of service and therapy animals before deciding to purchase Cotton with his funds.
“This is all research-based and evidence-based,” he said. “There’s lots and lots of benefits to having an animal in therapy. It has really been an eye opener to me.”
Bywater can cite studies that show having a therapy animal sitting in on sessions can help a patient overcome fear and anxiety.
When Bywater purchased Cotton in 2015, the CN did not have a policy written for service or therapy animals. So he wrote the Service Animal Laws and Information pamphlet for Health Services and the Animal-Assisted Therapy Program policy. It requires the completion of 100 hours of specialty training for a service or therapy animal designation.
Therapy animals are usually dogs or horses, though the category is not limited. The animals must receive strict training to work in schools, nursing homes and hospitals. Dogs must also pass the American Kennel Club’s Good Dog Citizen exam.
Service animals have training related to providing a service for an individual with a disability, such as alerting their handler to an oncoming seizure.
Emotional support animals are not required to have training, though their handler must obtain a letter from a licensed professional stating the individual suffers from psychological trauma or a disability such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder.
Indian Child Welfare has an emotional support animal in its golden retriever puppy Unali, named after the Cherokee word for “friend” and donated to ICW by the organization PuppySpot.
“Right now her job is just to let people love on her and her love on other people,” Nikki Baker Limore, ICW executive director, said.
Unali’s responsibilities will grow as she does and receives added training.
“Her handler, Connie Webb, will take her, and we want her to become a certified therapy dog so she learns additional techniques in order to help nurture these children,” Limore said. “It takes a lot to be a service dog. They have to learn it’s not about them when their work vest goes on.”
Limore said ICW hopes to use Unali to comfort children in various situations, including if they must testify in court, after supervised parental visitations or in foster care transitions.
In addition to dogs, ICW also has several full- and miniature-size horses as part of its equine therapy program.
“It’s great to give a child control over an environment and an animal who is wanting to trust them,” Limore said. “We’ve got pictures of our kids when they first started, scared to death of these horses, and then once they get on there and work with them and begin to have love for these animals, you just see them blossom.”
In June, the Jack Brown Treatment Center and ICW received three miniature horses named Kiss-Me Kate, Iris and Ambrosia from Missouri native Barbara Watters. Watters donated the horses after no longer being able to care for them and wanting to make sure they got a good home.
“We do have a lot of little kids, so our goal is to take them and teach them basic horse information with an animal that’s on their eye level,” Limore said.
She said the equine therapy gives children something to look forward to in a time of uncertainty.
“They don’t know what’s happening in their life. It’s all up in the air. So if we can give them a little bit of fun in the meantime or something to look forward to then that’s a step in the right direction,” she said.