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Volume 6 - No.1 - 2001

A Cold Nose and a Warm Heart
By Bryna Brennan, photo Armando Waak

The 14-year-old boy pulls with all his might on the rope, squealing and giggling as he challenges his tug-of-war opponent to beat him. The competitor looks fierce; intent to win, he growls. Growls? Well, why not? The challenger is a golden retriever. The boy is a resident at a Washington, D.C. area, psychiatric hospital. He is one of 10 adolescents taking part in a pet therapy program. The golden retriever, named Bear, is one of 10 dogs visiting the boys that Saturday.

 Boy and dog

For the better part of an hour, the boys, and sometimes girls, romp and play with the animals. Then a health worker gathers the participants–all of them. Tired adolescents sit around the gymnasium floor; breathless dogs put their heads on the boys’ laps. "Which dog did you identify with?" the instructor asks the children. "Why? What was it about that dog?"

A small boy, his voice just starting to change to the deep pitch of adulthood, points to the now panting golden retriever. "Bear," he says proudly. "He hangs in."

This particular program is run by PAL (People Animals Love), a nonprofit volunteer group that was started in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago with the goal of helping the lonely. Later it was expanded to prisons, nursing homes, and hospitals. It relies on volunteers who share their pets–not only dogs but also cats, hamsters, birds. You name it.

Pets increasingly are welcomed in therapy plans at facilities worldwide. A search on the Internet shows volunteer programs everywhere. "There’s no doubt about the value of pet therapy for public health," says Dr. Primo Arambulo, program coordinator for the veterinary public health program at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). "It works in the industrialized world, sure, but it works in the developing world, too, where pets also provide companionship and warmth."

The Benefits of Pet Therapy

The benefits of pet therapy are well documented. According to the standard-bearer of the pet therapy world, the Delta Society, "Those studying the interactions between people, animals, and the natural environment find it very difficult to overestimate the significance of animals in the lives of people everywhere." Since 1977 the Delta Society has studied the link among pets, pet owners, and caregivers, and has found that frequent contact with pets contributes to higher one-year survival rates following coronary heart disease, lower blood pressure and stress levels, improved quality of life for seniors, and better socialization of young children with their peers. In addition, seniors who own dogs go to the doctor less often than those who do not, pet owners cope better with serious life problems, pets decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation, and they boost children’s self-esteem.

At Potomac Ridge Behavioral Health, Adventist HealthCare, a hospital in the Washington, D.C., area, the staff has begun monitoring the youths’ blood pressure before and after pet visits. They have found "a significant lowering of blood pressure among youth participating in the pet visits," says Gayle M. Sutch, director of activity therapy.

Dr. José Miguel Caldas de Almeida, PAHO’s program coordinator for the mental health program, says pet therapy could be an integral part of mental health strategies. "It’s easy to understand why it works. It’s so important to have relationships, and animals help with that." For many patients, it’s not just the touch or the physical connection but also the act of caring for a pet.

Therapy dogs offer unconditional affection, which promotes feelings of well-being. "The process of giving care to others, the acts of nurturing, touching, holding, protecting, giving food, and guiding, evoked the same feelings, and the same physiological events as being nurtured," according to the Delta Society. "In its most simple form, when we care for others we feel as if we are cared for. That is why owners are so certain that their pets give them overwhelming love."

According to Judy Lumsden, volunteer coordinator for PAL, "people may feel less lonely, less sad, less depressed" during and after the visits. The pet owners leave smiling, as well. They, too, share that feeling of warmth with the people who so obviously appreciate the visits.

These benefits are increasingly recognized and studied worldwide. The World Health Organization in 2001 is cosponsoring the annual conference of the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations in Rio de Janeiro. Five hundred delegates from 25 countries are expected to attend. "This three-day Rio conference will host presentations that are expected to examine all aspects of our relationships with animals including: historical, cultural, cross-cultural, demographic, public health, veterinary, therapeutic, psychological, sociological and ethological," a news release says.

Wanted: A Nontemperamental Temperament

Dogs are the most common pet therapy workers and are usually just nice house pets whose owners share them, unlike the extensively trained dogs used to help the sightless and those confined to wheelchairs. The animal must be social, calm, tolerant, and friendly.

Temperament is the single most important factor. For example, an overly aggressive dog could appear threatening, while an unduly calm dog could come off as uninterested. At nursing homes, the dogs must be enthusiastic about their job, attentive to the patients, and uninterested in the other animals. They should be undeterred when a disturbed patient yells or an Alzheimer's patient ignores them. They should not mind physical disabilities, bandages, tubes, or shaved heads. They should just put their heads in the laps of agreeable patients and clearly convey that they enjoy their work as they receive soft strokes.

When dogs are used in hospitals, especially with kids, "they need to be bomb proof," says Mrs. Lumsden with a smile. She points out that the volunteers’ first job is to protect their pets, but she knows of no case in which dogs or kids have been hurt.

A group of girls at Potomac Ridge recently played with a group of visiting dogs. Some of the adolescents tossed dog treats into the dogs’ mouths, others threw tennis balls, and still others just wrapped their arms around the dogs and spoke quietly to them.

Last Christmas the girls prepared stockings with the dogs’ names in sparkles. Tucked inside were letters for the pet owners. One volunteer pet owner turned her head to hide a sudden rush of tears as she read from a letter in perfect printing: "The animals bring joy when there is despair, happiness when one is sad.…Dogs are awesome creatures. Each is different and has its own personality, like us, we can relate to them. And in a place like this, companionship is a necessity."

On the other side of town, at a Washington, D.C., nursing home, a blind woman confined to bed reaches out to touch all the furry visitors, several of whom are small enough to join her in bed. A bigger dog leaps up to put his front paws on the bed’s bars. "Here’s Bear," a PAL volunteer says, taking the woman’s wrinkled hand and bringing it to the dog’s face. She smiles as the dog returns the touch with a sloppy, wet lick. Such volunteers often are the only visitors these people get.

Bryna Brennan is the chief of PAHO’s Office of Public Information. She and her dog, Bear, are PAL volunteers.

Return to the Contents page of Perspectives in Health Volume 6 - No.1

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