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When Animals & Occupational Therapy Meet

by South University
January 11, 2019
A photo of two South University occupational therapy assistant students.

As they approach the horse, some students are hesitant and nervous. Others are thrilled—they’ve been looking forward to this day since their pediatrics class started. Part of the Associate of Applied Science in Occupational Therapy Assistant program South University, Richmond,* these students are visiting the Wings of Hope Ranch for a case study project. They’ve been given a description of a patient and now they need to determine how to meet the needs of that patient using animal-assisted therapy with horses.

For those unfamiliar with the field, occupational therapy helps patients to develop, recover, and maintain the skills needed for their daily lives, whether they’re at home, work, school, or in public spaces. To build these skills, occupational therapy assistants and therapists employ a number of tools and methods, and lately, more and more animals—including horses—are finding their way into therapy sessions.

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

In animal-assisted therapy, healthcare professionals use trained therapy animals to help patients engaged in occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, and other related practices. Their therapy goals remain the same, with the animal serving as a motivating or calming factor for the patient.

“You could use these horses, or the family's pet dog or a cat, or almost any animal. A nursing home I worked at years ago had a pot-bellied pig,” says Kimberly Alford, the Occupational Therapy Assistant program instructor who leads the South University students on their visit to Wings of Hope.

Recent research has shown that animal-assisted therapy can increase patient communication, language use, movement, play, and overall engagement in therapy. “Research shows especially individuals who've experienced trauma do much better when using animals in therapy,” notes Alford.

Animal-assisted therapy is also a common tool for working with children with autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, ADHD, cerebral palsy, and many other conditions.

Using Animal-Assisted Therapy in Occupational Therapy

The Wings of Hope Ranch outside Richmond where our students visit is home to eight rescued horses used to help a variety of children in need.

Brushing a horse can be a particularly effective means of occupational therapy, explains Alford. “If we need to increase shoulder and arm strength, reaching to the top of a horse involves a lot of repetitions of moving your arms up high, like you would in exercise. Because many patients are more motivated to brush a horse than to lift a one- or two-pound weight, we can get more repetitions with this method.”

To understand how this might help a patient, the South University students try their own hand at horse grooming. From there, they’re tasked with creating a treatment plan for the patient described in the case study. “They have to understand everything grooming the horse requires and how to teach that,” says Alford. “Things like sequencing multiple steps, bending and stooping, grasping different items, changing positions, safety awareness, attention to task, there are all of those components.”

Grooming horses can even teach and motivate children to follow personal grooming and hygiene practices. “Kids who won't allow you to fix their hair may allow it to be brushed and fixed to go into the riding helmet,” notes Alford.

Beyond grooming, the animal therapy teaches children how to interact with and build trust with the horses. By sitting on the horse, they also work on balance and their back and trunk muscles.

Many other animals are common in occupational therapy. For example, therapy dogs may be used to distract patients who are being stretched. Alternatively, therapy dogs may help motivate patients to complete activities that improve range of motion, coordination, fine motor skills, and strength. This might include a patient cutting up treats, feeding the animal, putting on a leash, or playing games with them. Tasks involving multiple steps can help patients improve cognitive functioning and memory.

Using animals for therapy can even motivate children who refuse to eat. “Kids who were fed through a tube early in life often have great difficulty eating later in life,” says Alford. “To get them to try new food, you might set it up so that if they eat their food, they're allowed to feed a bite to the dog or other therapy animal as a reward or reinforcement.

Preparing for an Occupational Therapy Career

At South University, learning about animal-assisted therapy is only one aspect of preparing to become an occupational therapy assistant. Our 2-year associate’s (AAS) degree occupational therapy assistant programs include both coursework and clinical experiences. Richmond students particularly interested in pursuing an animal-assisted therapy job may further explore that area through their fieldwork and may return to Wings of Hope for service-learning projects. However, they’ll also gain experience across settings and therapy tools.

“Animal-assisted therapy is a specialized way to use your therapy skills, but the biggest thing for us is that this experience provides another unique opportunity for our students to practice their clinical reasoning,” says Alford of her students’ time at Wings of Hope. “As a therapist, the tools you use can change a lot but that clinical reasoning remains the same.

At a pool, a therapist focuses on aquatics therapy. In the state of Virginia, occupational therapists can’t bring anything into the house with them on home visits, so they use only what’s on hand, Alford explains. “Every situation, every setting requires applying your clinical reasoning skills to use what's available to help your patient.”

To learn more about preparing for an occupational therapy career at a South University campus near you, request information or explore our Occupational Therapy programs today!

by South University
January 11, 2019
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South University Gives Back

by South University
October 30, 2018
A photo of an individual get a check-up by South University nursing students.

South University Students & Staff Serve Their Communities

At South University, we strive to instill in students not only a lifelong focus on their own personal and professional growth, but also on the improvement of the world around them. We believe that when we are all active members of our communities, together we can become stronger, smarter, and more successful than possible as individuals.

To honor and bring awareness to this mission, today, we celebrate some of the many South University students, faculty, and staff doing their part to make the world a better place.

A photo of South University, Online Programs employees working at a Back-to-School Breakfast fundraiser.Online Programs Team Raises Funds for Charity

South University, Online Programs partnered with Argosy University, Online Programs to host a Back-to-School Breakfast fundraiser this fall. Proceeds from this event benefited Pittsburgh-based non-profit organizations, Kitchen of Grace and Morrow School. By purchasing breakfasts at work, employees of South University, Online Programs and Argosy University, Online Programs raised over $850 to help members of their communities.

Nursing Students & Faculty Give Back-to-School Physicals at No Cost

South University, West Palm Beach Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) students worked side-by-side with nursing faculty to provide free school physicals for 400 students at two separate sites. Their work supported the Palm Beach County Office of Community’s Back to School Bash, designed to help all children get the support and services they need before heading back to school.

The South University BSN students began the screenings with registration, height, weight, BMI, blood pressure, and vision testing. The MSN students then completed the physical examinations and provided health education for the students and their parents. In addition to benefiting the community, the event was an excellent opportunity for our students to apply their enhanced nursing skills and expertise outside of the classroom.

A photo of South University, Online program staff members who volunteered at a Dress for Success event in Pittsburgh, PA.Online Programs Staff Members Volunteer at Dress for Success Organization

Employees from South University, Online Programs recently volunteered at Dress for Success Pittsburgh. Dress for Success is an organization that assists women in achieving economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire, and developmental tools that can help women thrive in work and life. Our Online Programs staff helped to sort, stock, and organize clothing at the Dress for Success boutique that assists clients with preparing for employment interviews.

Students Provide Meals for Families of Hospital Patients

The South University, West Palm Beach National Student Nurses Association chapter recently volunteered to prepare meals for the families of patients undergoing treatment at local hospitals.

The students volunteered as part of the ‘Chef for A Day’ program at Quantum House, an organization that provides a place to stay for families of patients at West Palm Beach area hospitals. Quantum House welcomes families from around the USA and the world while their children are receiving long-term medical care for anywhere from weeks to several months. The 30 rooms stay occupied throughout the year, and volunteers, such as our students, help to care for these families by providing meals.

The student nurses and their families volunteered by planning, fundraising, shopping, and cooking a brunch full of fresh fruit, eggs, omelets, waffles, and an assortment of muffins and cookies for 60 people at the Quantum House.

Students and Faculty Volunteer with Mobile Medical Clinic

A photo of South University, Virginia Beach Occupational Therapy Assistant, BSN, and MSN Family Nurse Practitioner students who volunteered at a mobile medical clinic.South University, Virginia Beach students from the Associate of Applied Science Occupational Therapy Assistant, BSN, and MSN with a specialization in Family Nurse Practitioner programs volunteered their time and talents to provide primary medical care at no cost for homeless and uninsured individuals and families.

Overseen by faculty members, the students volunteered in partnership with Promethean Group, a primary care mobile medical clinic at Beach Fellowship Church. The group also worked with the Promethean Group this fall, using their nursing skills and healthcare knowledge to provide back-to-school physicals at no cost for homeless and underprivileged youth in Hampton, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Chesapeake, VA.

Want to Join the South University Community?

Learn more about South University by exploring our site or contacting our team at 1.888.444.3404,or, if you’re interested in learning fully online, get a peek at the online classroom.

by South University
October 30, 2018
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South University, Austin Students Serve Lunch to the Homeless

by South University
June 27, 2018
Students Maria Munoz, Alex Wiens, Timothy Terry, Roda Kassiba, Melissa Palacios, Eileen Meroneck, Moise Lambe, and Wilnelia Aviles—along with Dr. Claire Stigler, full time faculty member in Public Health, and Dr. Seena Mathew, Program Director for Public Health

Creating healthier, stronger communities and making the world a better place is the shared mission of all public health professionals. Recently, a group of South University, Austin Bachelor of Science in Public Health students demonstrated their passion for this goal by volunteering in their city.

The students had been studying how socioeconomic factors can limit access to healthcare and affordable housing, when they decided to take action and support the Carita's of Austin local community kitchen. With nearly 20% of Austin households lacking consistent and reliable access to nutritious food, the nonprofit Carita’s of Austin helps people build physical wellbeing as they transition out of homelessness.

At Carita's, the South University students hand-prepared and served a lunch that included fruit and vegetable salad, mashed potatoes, venison meatloaf, and a sweet or savory pastry to over 250 members of the homeless community in the downtown Austin area. They were also involved in creating care packages including soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and razors. Through volunteering, this group of passionate students has helped to provide members of the homeless community a foundation upon which individuals can work toward their goal of rebuilding their lives.

Photo: Students Maria Munoz, Alex Wiens, Timothy Terry, Roda Kassiba, Melissa Palacios, Eileen Meroneck, Moise Lambe, and Wilnelia Aviles—along with Dr. Claire Stigler, full time faculty member in Public Health, and Dr. Seena Mathew, Program Director for Public Health—participated.

by South University
June 27, 2018
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Richmond Student and Faculty Volunteers Help Feed Local Communities

by South University
June 12, 2018
A young woman volunteering in a community kitchen

Community involvement and volunteerism is a big part of who we are at South University. Our mission is to foster not only academic and professional development but also personal growth in our students. South University, Richmond's support of FeedMore Community Kitchen is an excellent example of such work.

Every holiday season, the Richmond campus hosts an annual food drive to collect canned goods and other non-perishables for FeedMore Community Kitchen, central Virginia’s primary hunger-relief organization. With a service area stretching across 34 cities and counties, FeedMore helps nearly 200,000 children, families, and seniors who struggle with hunger in Central Virginia.

To grow the university's engagement with this vital community organization, student, faculty, and staff volunteers went to work this May in the FeedMore kitchen, preparing meals and learning more about their wide-ranging programs and initiatives to fight hunger.

South University volunteers packaged over 600 meals for the Meals on Wheels program and after school programs for local schoolchildren. The Community Kitchen makes nearly 3,000 meals daily for homebound seniors, disabled neighbors, after school programs, and adult day cares. Our volunteers worked as a team to prepare the deliveries, enjoying the opportunity to join in on community efforts to provide nutritious meals to local children, families, and seniors in need.

Learn more about FeedMore by visiting https://feedmore.org/.

by South University
June 12, 2018
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Richmond Nursing Students Receive Recognition & Praise

by South University
June 8, 2018
A photo of South University, Richmond nursing students Corina Nuckols and Amy Rankin.

Being a nurse can mean long days and hard work, but the personal reward of caring for others is immense. Recognition for that work can make being in this profession even more rewarding.

At South University, Richmond, the efforts and caring of our students and graduates is exceptional, and recently both their patients and members of the current healthcare community have been taking notice.

For example, this May, pending Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) graduate Amy Rankin of South University, Richmond was selected for a DAISY Award, an award selected by patients to honor extraordinary nursing care.

Another pending BSN graduate, Morgan Woody, went above and beyond at her preceptor side. Her preceptor, Aimee Morris, shared with us the following:

"Morgan helped the patients back to their rooms, placed them back on monitors, and rounded on every single patient. She didn't even need to be asked to help, she just did it. She stepped up with confidence and helped us out tremendously! She is a huge help every day that she is here, but today she is definitely a rock star! Thank you for giving me the opportunity to assist her in her clinicals. She will make an excellent nurse!"

A third pending BSN graduate Corina Nuckols has already secured a position after graduation and her future employer Cynthia Newsome wrote to her to say:

"Trish was just blown away by you on Saturday. She came back here to the offices and shared with Karen and myself what an amazing clinician you are! She was just amazed that you were pretty much taking care of the patients with minimal assistance. I just wanted to share this with you so you know that, no matter how difficult these last weeks are, this is your Calling and you are going to be AMAZING!"

We are so proud of these BSN students for receiving such praise and for all of our dedicated, passionate student nurses who have so much to offer the Richmond community and beyond.

Considering starting or growing your nursing career? Explore our nursing programs today.

by South University
June 8, 2018
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