It did not take long for me to recognize the therapeutic potential of Max, the hypoallergenic 5-month-old Havanese puppy I adopted in March 2014. He neither barked nor growled and seemed to like everyone, especially the many children that come up and down our block.
When I asked if a crying child passing by would like to pet a puppy, the tears nearly always stopped as fluffy little Max approached, ready to be caressed.
So I signed us up for therapy dog training with the Good Dog Foundation. If we passed the six-week course, we would be certified to visit patients in hospitals and nursing homes, children in schools, and people in other venues that recognize the therapeutic potential of well-behaved pets.
Training involves a joint effort of dog and owner, usually in groups of four to eight pairs. The dog can be any size, any breed, but must be housebroken; nonaggressive; not fearful of strangers, loud or strange noises, wheelchairs or elevators; and able to learn basic commands like sit, lie down and leave it. Good temperament is critical: A dog that barks incessantly, nips or jumps on people would hardly be therapeutic.
During our first visit to patients at my local hospital, a woman who said she’d had a “terrible morning” invited Max onto her bed, showered him with affection and, crying with pleasure, thanked me profusely for bringing him around to cheer her up.
Moments later, on the pediatrics ward, a toddler hospitalized with croup spotted Max and came charging down the hall squealing with delight. The two met eye-to-eye, Max even appeared to smile, and she giggled as she patted his head.
I don’t know about Max, but I was hooked. I agreed to bring him for monthly patient visits, with a promise to do more if my schedule permitted and I was able to do the required pre-visit bath.
A therapy dog need not be small and fluffy. A neighbor with a “mush” of a 90-pound American pit bull named Pootie has had similar experiences at the Veterans Affairs New York Harbor Healthcare System’s Brooklyn campus. During the first visit, one patient told him repeatedly, “You made my day.”
But while a hospital’s voluntary pet therapy program is designed to aid patients, in my experience the chronically stressed hospital staff benefits as much, if not more, from pet visits. Therapy pets differ from service animals like those that guide the blind, detect impending health crises for people with epilepsy or diabetes, or stimulate learning for children with autism or cerebral palsy.
Pet therapy most often involves privately owned animals – usually dogs, but also cats, rabbits, even kangaroos, birds, fish and reptiles – that their owners take to facilities to enhance the well-being of temporary or permanent residents. Thus, in addition to relieving the monotony of a hospital stay or entertaining residents in a nursing home, Max might visit a school where young children wary of reading aloud will happily read to a dog that does not care about mistakes.
At my local hospital, therapy dogs often attend group sessions for psychiatry patients. Cynthia Chandler, a counseling professor at the University of North Texas and author of “Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling,” reports that visits by her dog Bailey increased patient participation in group therapy and improved hygiene and self-care among those with severe mental illness.
At Veterans Affairs hospitals, not only therapy dogs but also parrots have reduced anxiety and other symptoms among patients being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The presence of therapy dogs makes such a difference,” said Valerie Abel, a psychologist who coordinates the pet therapy program at the Brooklyn Veterans Affairs hospital. “Many ask when they’ll next be back. A big dog can put its head on patients’ beds, and you can actually see them relax.”
Studies have shown that after just 20 minutes with a therapy dog, patients’ levels of stress hormones drop and levels of pain-reducing endorphins rise. Endorphins are the brain’s natural narcotic, the substance responsible for the runner’s high that helps injured athletes ignore pain.
In older patients with dementia, depression declines after they interact with a therapy animal. And researchers at the University of Southern Maine showed that therapy dog visits can calm agitation in patients with severe dementia.
In a controlled study of therapy dog visits among patients with heart disease, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found a significant reduction in anxiety levels, and blood pressure in the heart and lungs among those who spent 12 minutes with a visiting animal, but no such effect occurred among comparable patients not visited by a dog.
In an intriguing pet therapy program, shelter dogs considered unadoptable and living on “death row” are trained by prison inmates, including convicted killers and rapists, many of whom have serious anger issues.
The inmates work to socialize the dogs, teaching them to trust people, behave appropriately and obey simple commands. In turn, the inmates’ violence and depression decreases; they learn compassionate behavior, gain a sense of purpose, and experience unconditional love from the dogs in their care.
At the completion of training, rehabilitated dogs are offered to people who want to give a shelter animal a permanent home. Through the Safe Harbor Prison Dog Program at Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing, Kansas, for example, some 1,200 dogs have been adopted as pets.
Before signing up for therapy dog training, you’d be wise to find out what the program involves and its cost, and what will be required of you by the facilities you hope to visit. I have had to provide annual documentation of Max’s vaccinations and freedom from intestinal parasites, which typically requires a visit to the vet. I also had to show I was immune to multiple infectious diseases and free of HIV, and the hospital had to test me for drug abuse.
Still, the rewards Max and I have accrued as hospital volunteers more than compensate for these requirements.