Emotional Health · General Medical · Health

Pet Therapy: The Power of a Beating Heart

In our first group, Cosie and I met Robbie (all names are pseudonyms),  who was a burly man with thick glasses and a watch cap. He was wrapped up in a football team jacket as if he wanted to disappear into it, making eye contact with no one. Joan, leading the group, suggested that we take Cosie around to each person and have each individuals hold her on his or her lap to pet her or brush her. When it was Robbie’s turn, it took effort to pull him out of his withdrawn state, but soon he slowly accepted her into his enormous hands and let her sit on his lap, tentatively stroking her. Cosie remained very still — she’s not the kind of small dog who jumps up or tries to kiss you. A few moments went by. Robbie gave her a small smile, which later Joan told me was the first she had ever seen from him.

I was hooked, and there have been similar moments over the years. One of the benefits of staying with the same group is that you can develop relationships with the clients and see them change and develop over time. Juan, a shy, handsome young man who always sits very straight in his chair, declined to hold or even touch Cosie for several years, saying he didn’t think “she wanted him to.” Clearly he had some unwarranted fears to work through, but I was there as a volunteer, and in this instance Cosie was the therapist. Her job was to keep coming back and to be her gentle, accepting self.

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Over the years Juan has progressed to petting Cosie when she is sitting on the ground in front of him or sitting on the lap of his neighbor. He seems very relaxed. At the end of each session, everyone asks the dog to do simple tricks then gives her treats. Juan always would gingerly hold out a treat for her. Once Joan warned that she might jump into his lap if he held the treat up too high, and he joked that if that happened they would have to “send me upstairs to the in-patient ward!” Not only has he made progress, but this showed that he has enough perspective that he can laugh about what was once a deadly serious fear.

For many others, it is a straightforward matter of petting and hugging this loving animal, who often brings up memories of their own childhood pets. And according to The New York Times, “Studies have shown that after just 20 minutes with a therapy dog, patients’ levels of stress hormones drop and levels of pain-reducing endorphins rise. Endorphins are the brain’s natural narcotic, the substance responsible for the runner’s high that helps injured athletes ignore pain.”  And it’s not just dogs that are working to ease people’s pain. The Times has also reported on a specific program developed using parrots to help people with PTSD (l).  Other programs they report on include one in which prisoners retrain “unadoptable” dogs who are rehabilitated and offered to people who want to give permanent homes to shelter dogs. Both dogs and humans are measurably improved by their time together according to studies.

Research into the human/animal bond is growing and the field of pet therapy with it. Meanwhile, the use of personal “emotional support animals,” animals that provide comfort or psychological support to someone with a psychiatric diagnosis, like OCD or depression, has grown as well. I have always been moved at the sight of Seeing Eye dogs and imagined that they feel pride somehow in the important work they do. Perhaps I am anthropomorphizing when I ascribe these feelings to dogs, but I do know that when Cosie enters the group therapy room at the hospital she always prances in and announces herself by raising her chin giving three loud, happy barks of attention. We are warmly greeted by the guards now, and she truly seems to “like” her work. Perhaps it’s because of another thing we pet owners know: they seem to have an understanding of our emotional needs. Dogs’ sensitivity to moods is legendary and they are somehow able to detect when someone needs an extra dose of TLC. And better still, they are always willing to give it


***Beneficial effects of animal-assisted visits on quality of life during multimodal radiation-chemotherapy regimens Stewart B Fleishman, MD, Peter Homel, PhD, Maurice R Chen, BA, Victoria Rosenwald, RN, MPH, Victoria Abolencia, BS, Juliet Gerber, and Sanjay Nadesan, BA


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  • Deborah Robinson April 4, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    Wonderful Article. As someone who is a proclaimed “obsessed dog lover.” I loved your story! I love all dogs, big and small. I am on the board of Tri-County Animal Rescue and usually have 3 dogs of my own. We have two right now. My favorite statement about rescue dogs is “Who Recused Who?”

  • Andrea April 1, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Great article on a subject I am newly passionate about!! Unconditional love and appreciation! Dogs are a joy- I’ve also seen dogs brought into pediatric wards to interact with the kids- amazing!!!!

  • B. Elliott March 31, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Great article and info! My dog would be perfect for pet therapy. Will look into it!