Here in the United Kingdom last month was National Pet Month, an annual celebration of the joys of companionship that pets give devoted owners across the country. It’s been estimated that 48% of households in the UK have a pet and in the spirit of Pet Month a poll was taken by a social networking site which questioned pet owners across the country. According to the poll, over half of those questioned would rather hug their pets than a close relative when they are feeling down! This reflects the fact that pets can be a great source of comfort to those in discomfort and distress. This effect has been harnessed by the use of ‘therapy dogs’, which have been active in the UK for a long time in an effort to help ease the physical and mental discomfort of the ill and infirm.
Therapy dogs are becoming more widely used across the UK and the US, with many charities becoming aware of the benefits they can bring. In fact, courtesy of a number of Lutheran Church Charities in America, ten dogs were sent to help comfort victims of the recent tornado which struck Oklahoma. The ferocious tornado carved a 17-mile path of destruction through neighbourhoods, damaging up to 13,000 homes, doing $ 2bn (£1.33bn) in damage, and tragically claiming at least 24 lives. Tim Hetzen, the man in charge of the Lutheran Church’s efforts to comfort the victims’ families, explained how therapy dogs could help:
“Our dogs stay out as long as possible to be with families to help them process their loss. A big part of processing loss is talking about it,” Hetzen said. “The dogs are great for that, because they’re great listeners, they show unconditional love, they don’t take notes and they’re confidential, so they’re great tools for people to pet. When you pet a dog, you relax. When you relax, you’re more likely to share.”
Interestingly it’s not only moods that have been shown to improve by interaction with friendly canines. In addition to providing a psychological boost, physical interaction with therapy dogs has been shown to reduce stress by lowering blood pressure and heart rate. Contact with affectionate dogs has been found to promote the body’s release of beneficial neurochemicals including oxytocin, dopamine, phenethylamine and various endorphins which are known to reduce stress and harmful chemicals, supporting the recovery of the human body.
One of the earliest examples of therapy dogs is the case of Smokey the Yorkshire Terrier, a therapy dog active during World War 2. Smokey, who had been abandoned on a battlefield in Papua New Guinea, was rescued by a Corporal William Wynne. When Wynne was hospitalized with a jungle disease, his pals decided to take the little dog to the hospital to cheer him up. Smokey was welcomed with open arms by the hospital staff when it became clear that she provided great comfort to wounded soldiers, who were recovering from their injuries.
Therapy dogs really began to be used in a more systematic way in the 1970s. Elaine Smith, an American nurse working in England, noticed the positive effect on patients when the hospital chaplain had his golden retriever accompany him around the hospital on rounds. The dog had a great effect on the wellbeing of the patients, with the canine’s visit sometimes the highlight of their day. Smith moved back to the U.S. in 1976 with her new insights and founded Therapy Dogs International, the first national registry of therapy dogs in the country.
Therapy Dogs International has sparked a trend in the use of therapy dogs and just seven years after it was founded, a similar organisation called ‘Pets as Therapy’ was established here in the UK. They are the leading UK charity providing animals for therapy sessions in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and care homes. Over its 30 year existence it has had the help of over 22,000 dogs, with around 4500 dogs currently helping more than 130,000 people every week.
If you would like to help, and have a dog which you think has a suitable temperament, you too could offer your pet as a therapy dog and begin providing priceless comfort to the unwell and infirm. Simply contact your local therapy dog organization to see whether they accept new pets, and they will tell you what to do next.
About the author: Brit Peacock is an animal lover currently blogging about how dogs can be used to help comfort those suffering from illness and personal injury.