By Colleen Kelly
The health benefits of owning a dog have long been known, but now people are starting to bring dogs into hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and prisons where canine affection is changing peoples’ lives and promoting wellness.
Only a dog owner could relate to the feeling of being greeted by ecstatic, tail-wagging euphoria after a hard day at work. Every day, regardless of what you’ve accomplished or where you’ve been, your dog is elated to see you, and that joy can be contagious.
Reciprocating your dog’s love and happiness can buffer you from stress by helping you relax. In fact, new research has shown that dog owners are happier, healthier, and are likely to live longer than people who don’t own pets.
Everyone has heard the phrase ‘man’s best friend,’ but it wasn’t until recently that humans spotted the relationship between this unconditional friendship and its effect that translates into a dog’s ability to improve a human’s emotional health. For some people, simply spending time with a dog can do wonders for their mood and wellbeing. Organizations like Therapy Dogs International and Therapy Dogs Inc. make use of this human/animal bond to increase wellness by sending trained therapy dogs to nursing homes, hospitals, schools, disaster sites, and anywhere else that the calming effect of a dog’s presence can be of assistance.
Pat Kinch is a member of Pals on Paws, a Minnesota-based chapter of Therapy Dogs International. Her rottweilers Chopper and Panzer are both registered therapy dogs that pay visits to people who are in need of some canine affection. They primarily visit nursing homes and hospitals to spend time with people who request a visit, and Pat Kinch sees the effects of these visits first-hand. “We go in and the person gets to pet the dogs and talk to the dogs,” says Kinch, “there’s some really nice bonding that takes place.” The dogs love the attention, and the person benefits from the calming affect of petting and chatting to a dog. “We really make a difference,” she adds, “because some of these people have had dogs in their lives that have been really special to them, and seeing a therapy dog come in brings back some really good memories. It just makes their day.”
In Cheyenne Wyoming, Billie Smith is a member of Therapy Dogs Inc, a separate organization of therapy dogs in the US. She takes her dogs to nursing homes, hospices, and prisons on a regular basis. “It gives people something to look forward to,” she says, “in some cases we are the only visit these people will have, but at least they know that there’s someone coming to see them.”
Therapy Dogs have also been sent to disaster sites, such as house fires, to visit the victims. The presence of the dog is meant to distract peoples’ attention and to provide them some comfort. “This is so needed,” says Kinch, “there are so many ways that a dog can improve someone’s life. Even a short visit can do wonders.”
Dogs can also do wonders for physical therapy patients. Stroke victims are often given the opportunity to sit and pet or brush a dog to encourage movement and to improve their mechanical skills. Feeding, brushing, and playing with dog is something that they really want to do. According to Smith, people enjoy the companionship, and so they’re motivated to use their muscles, despite how difficult it might be.
In terms of this motivation, the presence of therapy dogs can also help
kids learn to read. The dog will visit a school or library and simply sit with the child to calm her and to provide a listening ear. It can be the perfect conditions for a child who would be self-conscious reading in front of her teacher or peers. “The dog isn’t telling them ‘this is wrong’,” explains Kitch, “so they won’t be afraid to just keep going.” Furthermore, just knowing that a dog will visit is a great motivator for the children. “If they know a dog is coming in, they’ll work their butts off to have a book ready to read him.” These happy, confident children begin to associate reading with relaxing and pleasurable environment.
To become certified as a therapy dog, a dog must first go through intense obedience training and become acclimatized to the environment in hospitals and nursing homes. It also helps if the dog naturally has a calm and tolerant temperament. “There’s no specific breed, size, or color of dog that does therapy work better than any other,” explains Billie Smith, “It has everything to do with how the dog is trained and socialized. Older dogs are often more stable and pets that aren’t trained for competitions will often tune into their patients a bit quicker. We have all kinds of dogs from all kinds of backgrounds.”
Pat Kinch has received some interest in her dogs Chopper and Panzer from their friends at Dogphoria.com, a popular networking site for dog lovers. “Some people don’t realize what their dogs are capable of,” adds Kinch, “but as they learn more about therapy dogs, they realize that their dog could be good at something like this too. Even big dogs can be cuddly and smoochy.”
If you think your dog would make a good therapy dog or want to get involved, the experts would suggest that you start out by socializing your dog as much as possible. “Take him to the park to be around other dogs,” says Billie Smith, “or join in with a local charity walk. You want the dog to be around as many people and dogs and sounds as possible so that he’ll learn to feel calm around them.”
For more information about certification for your dog or about Therapy Dogs International and Therapy Dogs Inc., visit