12 January 2015 | Good to know

The healing power of therapy dogs

 A pet (and a pat) a day keeps the doctor away

Have you ever noticed that when you are feeling blue, spending time with your furry best friend is an instant pick-me-up? Try it. Sit with your dog for a few minutes this evening, just patting and stroking him. You’ll be a happier person, guaranteed. According to Wikipedia, the mood-enhancing qualities of dogs was first noted and documented during the Second World War when a Yorkshire Terrier named Smoky was found by a soldier abandoned on the battlefield. Smoky was used to cheer up the soldier up when he was hospitalised and soon became popular in the ward, bringing joy, hope and happiness to a number of the wounded. He literally became the doctor’s ‘assistant’ and would accompany him on his rounds. And so he became the first therapy dog.

More than just a pick-me-up

Not only do dogs bring comfort, hope and even just a simple smile to those in hospitals, retirement homes and nursing institutions, they have also been known to be beneficial in helping those with learning difficulties, shyness and those with disabilities. Therapy dogs have also been used in disaster areas, bringing comfort to those affected by crisis situations. More specifically, research has proven that therapy dogs lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depression, increase endorphins (the body’s ‘natural high’) and increase the level of oxytocin in the body (the hormone associated with intimacy). With both physical and psychological benefits, it’s no wonder institutions have been using therapy dogs for years.

Which breeds can become therapy dogs?

It takes a special dog to become a therapy dog and they need to be specially trained as such. Smaller breeds such as poodles, beagles and Yorkshire terriers do well as therapy dogs because they can sit on laps and be lifted onto hospital beds. Golden Retrievers are also known to be excellent therapy dogs for their calm demeanour and gentle nature.

Truly, a child’s best friend

Children especially, lose all inhibitions when talking to or playing with a dog as dogs don’t judge and often are simply there to lend an ear. The results of children working with therapy dogs have been truly amazing. After the Newtown tragedy in America in 2012, where 20 children and 6 teachers were fatally wounded, Golden Retrievers were brought in to assist in the grief counselling. A number of children opened up about the events of that day and how they were feeling in the aftermath, more than their parents or counsellors could get out of them. Children with speech impediments or confidence issues find it much easier reading to a dog who is sitting attentively, wagging his tail. Practically, therapy dogs can assist with picking up dropped objects, opening doors etc. and can provide the motivation needed to get moving for those with physical disabilities or post-surgery. Children with autism, Down’s syndrome, behavioural issues and those suffering from substance abuse have all responded positively to ‘treatment’ using therapy dogs. The list is not exclusive to children.

Canine therapy with adults has proven to be just as effective. The results are astounding, and remarkable to witness. So, next time you’re feeling down (or have a larger need with a special-needs child, friend or relative), look no further than a therapy dog. You might find you’ll benefit greatly too! After all, there’s nothing quite like a hug from Man’s Best Friend, is there?    

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