“A dog has no use for fancy cars, big homes, or designer clothes. A waterlogged stick will do just fine. A dog doesn't care if you're rich or poor, clever or dull, smart or dumb. Give him your heart and he'll give you his. How many people can you say that about? How many people can make you feel rare and pure and special? How many people can make you feel extraordinary?” – John Grogan, Marley and Me
I used to work in the Pediatrics Department of a hospital in The Bronx. I’m not sure how many readers have spent entire weeks with chronically and terminally ill children (and if you have, you’ll know I’m not exaggerating), but it’s not an entirely happy place. For sure, there are moments of victory sporadically occurring throughout different patient’s lives; and those are wonderfully joyous times for the families that you may or may not get to witness and share with them. Unfortunately, a lot of the time it’s not that…unless it was Tuesday.
See, on Tuesdays, our brilliant Department Head arranged for a visit from an organization that would bring two hypoallergenic therapy dogs into the hospital so that these children could have a little time with them. I do not know the words, in any language, to explain to you how quickly these children would perk up. Children with cancer, with sickle-cell anemia, with diabetes, bed ridden, exhausted….all of a sudden, sitting up ready to play with these 4 legged, furry friends. Actually, I take back what I said before about not having the words to explain it, because it was nothing short of genuine magic.
Nothing to wag your finger about
“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” ― Roger Caras
As a shameless animal lover, I made sure to take my lunch on Tuesdays at the same time as the people who brought the dogs to the hospital, so that I may get my own time with these joy bringers. I would order my food in the hospital’s diner and sit in a booth near them and have some one on one time. I’d find myself just as happy and perked up as the children were just a few hours ago. I began to wonder why, knowing it couldn’t just be my love for dogs making me this happy. UCLA did a study on the effects of Animal Therapy and how humans can benefit, and they found several benefits to using Therapy Animals.
If you’ve spent time petting a dog, cat, horse, even a rabbit and felt an immediate emotional boost, then you have experienced one of the mental health benefits of animal therapy. For most people, the presence of an animal prompts the body to release serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. These hormones generate a relaxation and stress-reducing response. These hormones also reduce anxiety and can help an individual feel less lonely, especially one in the hospital. There has even been evidence of reducing stress for people struggling with Dementia.
Another study found that visits with therapy dogs improved cardiovascular health in heart patients, precipitating lowered blood pressure and lowered stress hormone levels. Regular visits with therapy animals can reduce the amount of medication some people need to manage medical conditions. Anxious patients experience slowed breathing, and interaction with welcoming animals actually boosts the immune system as well. The release of oxytocin impacts the immune system and increases the pain threshold, helping people heal more quickly.
Children with neurological differences, such as autism, often perform better in their language and social therapies when they have an animal to interact with. The presence of an animal can create spontaneous communication in situations where a child might otherwise choose not to communicate. For children with anxiety and hyperactivity disorders, the animal can help calm or focus the child, so they will work hard in therapy sessions. Put simply, not only are there benefits to our Mental Health, but our Physical Health as well, in conjunction with a boost in our ability to learn necessary and helpful skills.
“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” ― Josh Billings
So, who can benefit from working with a therapy animal? Anyone, really. Animal Assisted Interventions are incredibly helpful to a wide variety of people from Children to Adults, Veterans, Senior Citizens, Prisoners, and pretty much anything else you can think of. One of my favorite ideas to happen on this planet was the notion that Prisoners can TRAIN therapy dogs. The prisoners themselves receive all the benefits of Animal Assisted Interventions. They are able to train dogs to be Seeing Eye Dogs for the blind, or to help Veterans with America’s VetDogs program. Yes, the dogs get trained for an owner outside of the prison, but the Trainer becomes a certified trainer while still in prison, and has a skill to use outside of prison, once they have been released.
I spent a lot of time on dogs, but it should be known that many different species of animals are perfectly functional as therapy animals. Horses, Cats, Rabbits, Goats and Pigs are also fantastic choices for therapy animals. Maybe, they could help you too.