Emotional Health · General Medical · Health

Pet Therapy: The Power of a Beating Heart

Anyone who has had a dog understands firsthand the deep emotional satisfaction that comes from the bond you share with your beloved. Coming home at the end of the day and being greeted by these devoted friends is a ritual that pet lovers treasure. Even the unwanted “gifts” we may find upon our arrival in the form of shredded papers, accidents, or worn furniture are overlooked with a spirit of forgiveness that the people in our lives rarely earn.

One of the reasons for our enduring love and tolerance for pets is the unconditional positive love they offer us. A good dog is essentially nature’s perfect love object. They are loyal, tireless, and completely nonjudgmental. They are also willing to share their love. While some are decidedly “owner-centric,” many dogs are friendly and loving to anyone who will pay attention to them. If your dog is also calm, not easily frightened, and able to obey a few simple commands like “sit” and “stay,” she might be suited to becoming a therapy dog — that is a dog who can bring her talent for loving to therapeutic use.

Cosette, a white ball of fluff who was judged to be a “malti-poo” (Maltese/Poodle mix) as a puppy, was happy, sturdy, and eager from the day she came home. Never fearful or shy, (Subway? No problem) “Cosie,” as she quickly became known, would dive into any adventure and happily present herself to strangers. I had known about pet therapy programs for a while and experienced them firsthand when my husband was hospitalized for an extended stay. Inquiring, I discovered there are several programs for this, including the Good Dog Foundation, which provides training programs in various locations across New York, where I live. I decided to sign up Cosie for the six-week program.

RELATED: Memories of a Faithful Dog

During the training, besides testing the dog’s ability to follow commands (sit, stay, lie down), the trainers assess the dog’s temperament, especially in regard to fearfulness, neuroticism, and friendliness. The program does not want to accept a dog that would react badly to a strange situation or be put under undue stress. Among the tests that the dogs undergo are exposure to medical equipment, like wheelchairs and walkers, and to sudden movements by strangers, including children.

Upon earning our certificate and getting a clean bill of health from the vet (be advised there are costs to all this) we were ready for placement. The program offers a vast array of them, including programs at schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and mental health centers, to name a few, and volunteers do not have to limit themselves. When we first began, Cosie and I participated in a study that the foundation was doing with Beth Israel Hospital Center investigating if patients undergoing chemotherapy had improved quality of life if they received visits from therapy dogs while awaiting treatment.***

Joan SJoan Schumacher, social worker with Community Support Services at Metropolitan Hospital Center.

Shortly after that, in 2011, we visited a group that had just started at Metropolitan Hospital Center. Joan Schumacher, a social worker who has been employed for eight years at their program for Community Support Services for the outpatient psychiatric department, worked for almost three years to get the program approved, getting permission from infection control and other hospital agencies. The first day Cosie and I visited, when the program was being launched, we were stopped by every guard in the building, despite my ID badge and her jaunty blue and orange Good Dog scarf.

RELATED: Book Review: Dog House: A Love Story by Carol Prisant

Community Support Services run groups and programs for patients with mental illness who are living outside of a hospital environment. They are the kind of patients who, with the help of medication and community mental health centers, are no longer in need of full-time care but may still have considerable gaps in social support or job skills. Some may no longer have active psychotic symptoms but have what are often called “deficit” symptoms,  like flat affect or withdrawal.

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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?”

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  • 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!!!!

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  • 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!

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