At age 85 my mom was active, strong and walking several times a day with her beloved Beau — a darling cocker spaniel. That is until he had to be put down. Everything changed. Our begging her to get another dog fell on deaf ears. Not only did she stop walking, she became self-focused and obsessive about her health. An infected finger was the beginning of a downward spiral that lasted seven years until her death.
However, one of her joys while residing in the assisted-living facility was the monthly canine visits. Brandy, a humongous golden retriever, would arrive galloping at full speed, checking out every nook and cranny of the lobby. Next she would gently place her sweet face on the lap of every single smiling resident — tail wagging and body wiggling as each person came to life and their spirits lifted.
In a heartbeat this one silly dog changed the psychological landscape and emotional makeup of more than 30 people. Like Brandy, visiting dogs to hospitals and nursing homes are credited with helping residents be more receptive to treatment, boosting self-esteem, lifting depression and isolation and causing renewed cooperation with therapists.
Therapy dogs even roam the halls of mainstream medicine at St. Anthony’s Medical Center and are an integral part of the practice of Dr. Bart Kairuz and Dr. Jaime Santos. Their patients adore the three dogs; however, the main benefit derived from these canine creatures is that they help lower blood pressure.
Scientific data indicates that dogs are natural born healers. They improve the quality of our lives, plus can increase longevity. Studies have found that besides lowering blood pressure, dogs help improve our heart function, reduce stress and tension, improve cholesterol levels and heighten our resistance to disease.
These glorious companions also reduce fear, loneliness, anxiety and depression. Perhaps the psychological benefits are the cause of the physical improvements that we experience from being with dogs.
Caring for pets has been shown to contribute to the reduction of anti-social behavior among troubled teenagers. Children and teens with rage and attention deficit issues can learn to be calm and attentive.
Prisons across the country have had dog programs for years, starting in 1984 at a women’s facility near Seattle. The impact of similar programs throughout the United States is universally positive. Inmates learn training skills that support their own successful rehabilitation and re-entry into society. Morale of both inmates and prison staff is greatly enhanced in participating facilities.
After the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Tim Hetzner, leader of the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs team, traveled to Newtown, Conn., with nine golden retrievers and their volunteer handlers. The community response to the dogs was overwhelming gratitude.
“A lot of times, kids talk directly to the dog,” Hetzner says. “They’re kind of like counselors with fur. They have excellent listening skills, and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don’t judge you or talk back.”
Simply petting a dog has physical and psychological benefits. A little girl who hadn’t spoken since the shootings finally started talking to her mother again after petting one of the “comfort dogs.” Groups of teenagers began to open up and discuss their fear and grief with each other while they all petted the same dog.
How fortunate we are that the creative force of the universe designed these playful furry creatures to serve us well as companions, rescuers, teachers, guides, helpers and healers — forever reminding us that the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and one another is unconditional love.
— Susan Ann Darley is a creativity coach and business writer. Click here for more information, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805.845.3036. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.