Therapy dogs




Therapy Dogs

Many Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities around the nation have begun inviting “furry friends” –otherwise known as Therapy Dogs into their facilities to visit with Residents.  According to studies of the effect that animals have on human health and behavior-the companionship of a dog could be very beneficial to the health and happiness of many people including Senior Citizens.   Doctors have now begun to come around to this way of thinking as well in the wake of such studies.  We should not be surprised by this thought process, after all-when was the last time you didn’t find yourself smiling as a dog wagged his whole rear end along with his tail as you spoke to him ?  Did you feel the warmth of love sweep over you as she tried and possibly even succeeded in giving you her “puppy kisses”?  It might have been as simple as just feeling calm all around you as you stroked soft fur. Please stop, for just a moment, and ask yourself this question; “Did the unconditional love and attention of an animal make me feel the entire World was right-if only in that small moment”?  Therein lays the premise of Pet Therapy. 
The unconditional love of an animal does wonders for general health and happiness, but also for mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, sadness, and even bereavement.  It is the opinion of some, that it is not disease or even natural causes that is the leading cause of death for our Senior Citizens-but loneliness. While these things are never easy for anyone, they would be doubly hard after spending over half your life, if not more with one person and then losing them.  This regrettably is the case for many Senior Citizens, and along with the grieving, comes deep sadness and many times depression. In facilities where a Therapy Pet program is in place, a regular visit from a Therapy Dog for one on one interaction through play, petting etc. would indeed improve outlook and begin to lift the sadness and ease loneliness. The affects of Pet Therapy on Alzheimer’s disease and Senile Dementia are also similar, with the addition of the nurturing of the dog helps to keep the mind focused.

According to The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interactions: Benefits and Responsibilities: Pet Therapy is also helpful in controlling Systolic Blood Pressure in Men and also in Women over 40 whereas those who did not interact with an animal had considerably  higher Systolic Blood Pressure.  Another way in which Pets are helpful is in the case of general illnesses such as cold, flu, hay fever etc. although it was never proven if interacting with an animal actually kept the subjects in the study from getting ill, or if they were just less worried and afraid about getting ill.  The biggest part that Pet Therapy played was in its affect on “Fight or Flight Response” which is the reflex with which the body responds to considerable stress or extreme fear.  When in such a situation, the Sympathetic Nervous System triggers an increase in blood pressure, respiratory system and the heart.  It also releases hormones that prepare the body to either fight or flee.  If for some reason the stress or fear passes, the brain recovers quickly from the stress or fear, however the body and its systems take quite some time to recover-placing undue stress on the Cardiovascular System.  If this should happen repeatedly over a sustained period, it is a danger to the Cardiovascular System. Studies, on which the book is based, showed that if an elderly or disabled person is around an animal, simply interacting with that animal through play, nurturing etc. could certainly be enough to lessen a stressful or fearful situation or alleviate it all together.  Studies also showed that the presence of an animal could relieve stress hormone which has been building up in the body-and could potentially keep the need for the “Fight or Flight” Response at bay.

As you can see, Pet Therapy is a valuable asset in rehabilitating people who have for whatever reason stopped moving and exercising their muscles, or those who have shut themselves off from other residents.  The presence of animals in their lives will draw them back among others and give them reason to begin to enjoy life more.  In so doing, they will lead more enriched lives and experience the never-ending love and attention an animal gives so freely.

There are many states starting programs with Therapy Dogs and other types of animals; but we have a very long way to go to see it happen in all 50 states- in all Nursing Homes, Assisted Living Homes and Hospitals.   We must start at our local levels, in our own communities.  In this way, these wonderful and useful programs will grow all the more quickly.  Remember, together – as with anything we do in life-, we can do anything!

Article by Marti