Most of us have heard the news that people benefit from interacting with therapy pets. The evidence abounds. The American Journal of Cardiology found that pets help people adapt to stressful events. Another study by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Anthropology reported how children with autism benefit from interacting with therapy pets. CBS recently covered a story about a program in Birdsboro, PA, where kids read to shelter cats as a way to help improve their reading skills and gain confidence. There are several other studies that show how people who are stressed (or ill or lonely) benefit from nothing more than petting and interacting with a dog or cat. I believe the reports, so much so that I had my own dog, Dexter, trained to be a therapy dog (in actuality, it just comes natural to him, though he was required to pass a series of tests and evaluations). I joined the Happy Tails pet therapy organization, and I recall attending the new volunteer orientation where they explained that they have a high demand for volunteers and therapy pets. They have teams that periodically visit about 100 health care institutions, schools, mental facilities, nursing homes, and hospitals around the metro Atlanta area. But what caught my attention was that they have another 100+ facilities that are on their waiting list and in need of pet therapy services. After completing the orientation and passing the tests, we joined a team of volunteers and about once or twice a month we visit a nursing home. Although I haven’t asked anyone outright, I think Dexter has brought comfort to some, and was perhaps a welcome distraction for others. Notice that I’ve used words like “I think” or “I believe”. That’s because I’ve not been on the receiving end of the leash – or in other words, I haven’t been the one who needed “pet therapy”.
Dexter hadn’t been a therapy dog for long when we he was diagnosed with a large chest tumor. After several family discussions, we decided on surgery. The tumor was large. All the veterinarians that we consulted with said that the odds of a successful surgery were good – but that they would not know for certain until he was on the operation table. So we had to be prepared for the worst – the tumor may be too advanced, which would mean we’d have to say good-bye. The surgeon seem optimistic, but in the back of my mind I was thinking – what would happen if the tumor is too advanced? Part of me was filled with dread.
The morning of the surgery, I brought Dexter to the vet hospital and then sat down and waited. After about 3 hours, I stared up at the clock and thought, “the surgery is taking longer than anticipated”. Was this a sign that the tumor was more complex than even the surgeons thought? No longer was that feeling of dread in the back of mind – it had moved to the front – and emotionally I was like a shaken soda bottle waiting to explode. In a weak attempt to distract my mind, I pulled out my cell phone and opened the Bleacher Report to check the sports news. While looking at the previous nights basketball scores, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a golden retriever staring at me intently. He was sitting across the room with his person. The room was full of people, but his eyes never left me. I smiled at the dog and went back to my phone. But again out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the dog had now stood up and was pulling on his leash in my direction. He had not taken his eyes off me – he was wanting to come see me. So I left my chair and walked across the room to the dog where he calmly yet happily greeted me. I spent maybe only five minutes with the dog, but instantly my stress level dropped and I felt at peace. I thanked the dog and his person, and as I walked back to my chair it quickly hit me – that feeling of dread had disappeared. At that point, I realized just how powerful a therapy dog can be and how powerful animals can be with sensing people who are in need.
Thankfully, Dexter’s surgery was a success. His recovery went well and he has been cleared to start doing his therapy visits again. I’m excited to visit the nursing home again, especially now that I know just how important and beneficial therapy pets can be. To learn more about therapy dogs, or to learn about how to become a volunteer, please visit the following links.
Wagbrag – Intro to Therapy Dogs: https://wagbrag.com/therapy-dogs-sharing-the-love/
Wagbrag – Animal Assisted Therapy and Activities: https://wagbrag.com/animal-assisted-therapy/
Happy Tails Pet Therapy Organization: http://www.happytailspets.org/
AKC Kennel Club – Pet Therapy Directory: https://www.akc.org/akctherapydog/organizations.cfm