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The Therapeutic Canine

A dog-and-trainer team with the Hudson Valley Visiting Pet Program. Many of the teams are also registered Reading Education Assistance Dogs, who help children gain confidence with their reading skills.
  • A dog-and-trainer team with the Hudson Valley Visiting Pet Program. Many of the teams are also registered Reading Education Assistance Dogs, who help children gain confidence with their reading skills.

Dogs and humans have been engaged in a dance of interdependence for over 10,000 years. There are a wide variety of theories about how the contact got started, but the benefits to both species have been massive. From half-wild scavengers cleaning up the streets in impoverished places to bomb-sniffing canine heroes, dogs have shown a remarkable ability to adapt themselves to our needs in ways we're just beginning to understand.

The value of dogs in healing was first formally articulated during World War II, when Corporal William Wynne took an abandoned terrier under his wing. Smoky went with the corporal into battle; when he was taken ill, his buddies knew Smoky would cheer him up. Smoky turned out to have such a calming and pleasing effect on the other soldiers on the ward that Dr. Charles Mayo, a descendant of the Mayo Clinic founders, hired him to make rounds. A nurse, Elaine Smith, watched the whole thing and decided to replicate it on the home front.

These days, more is known about exactly what happens when human skin touches warm fur. Blood pressure drops, as do blood levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are anxiety-related neurotransmitters. Endorphins and oxytocin, the body's happy highs, spike up. Anxiety and aggression fade.

Scratching an Itch

"There was an elderly lady who'd had a knee replacement and wasn't doing well," says Kevin Tait, a dog breeder and trainer in Bangor, Michigan who certifies therapy dogs for obedience through the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen program. "She was anxious and depressed and they were concerned that her body was rejecting the replacement knee. They brought in this massive Great Pyrenees and as soon as she sank her fingers into his coat, her blood pressure went down. She started to heal pretty much right away.

"The dog won, too," says Tait. "She wore her fingernails long, and she could scratch him all the way down through that thick fur to his skin. She'd scratch all over his head and neck and shoulders. As soon as he got to that hospital, he'd head straight for her room."

Therapy dogs are not to be confused with service dogs, the federally protected personal aides who accompany people with various disabilities and work one-on-one. A therapy dog is a canine with the common touch, able to relate well to pretty much anyone and keep his or her cool under almost any circumstances. And beginning in the last quarter of the twentieth century, with the formation of organizations like the Delta Society (rechristened Pet Partners) and Tender Loving Zoo, it's been realized that dogs can help in an almost unlimited variety of stressful situations.

"What we try to maintain is a core group of dogs and volunteers going to where they individually feel most comfortable," says CJ Puotenin, a co-founder of the Rockland County-based Hudson Valley Visiting Pets. "One dog might love a school, another dog might prefer an assisted living facility. They're versatile, but we try to match the animal with the right kind of clients in terms of activity level and so on." Hudson Valley Visiting Pets works with many species of domestic animals, in a wide range of settings; they also provide dogs for the READ program, in which patient canines serve as uncritical audiences for children learning to read.

"We look for animals who are calm, friendly, and quiet by nature. They need to travel well and recover easily from a distraction. They're trained up to a certain level of obedience- nothing too elaborate. The qualities you look for are either in the dog or they're not, although some just aren't ready yet- they need to be at least a year old to even be considered." Besides passing obedience certification from the canine Good Citizens folks, visiting dogs are given thorough physical checkups and tested for diseases before they're sent in.

More Anecdotes Than Hard Data

click to enlarge A student at Green Chimneys plays with Blueberry, a service dog.
  • A student at Green Chimneys plays with Blueberry, a service dog.

Trained therapy dogs can participate in the healing process at two official levels: animal-assisted activities, which can be as simple as a visit and a cuddle, and animal-assisted therapy, which may involve specific occupational, physical, or other therapy exercises taking place with the supervision of a licensed human therapist.

"Animal-assisted activity is not automatically therapy," says Michael Kaufmann, Director of Farm and Wildlife at Green Chimneys, a residential treatment facility in Patterson for children ages 5 to 18 who are coping with a variety of neuropsychiatric and emotional challenges. "In the field, we distinguish between formal therapy involving a person with a license who can layer an animal into the work with the client, and therapeutic activity, which is much broader.

"At the same time, we're not really claiming that formal therapy is automatically better," says Kaufman. "Our teachers, dorm staff, and farm staff spend all kinds of time with the animals and the kids that can be therapeutic. Great things can happen when you get dogs into the classroom with teachers. Great things can happen in the barn.

"It's emerging science, not locked down by any means. There are a lot more encouraging anecdotes than hard data. But many of our children significantly improve—from physical issues like fine motor skills to learning to pick up on emotional cues. Many of our kids are on the autism spectrum and have a hard time with reading those signals—a dog can offer an invaluable introduction to the concept. Dogs have straightforward behavioral cues—tail wagging, ears back—and they're never dishonest or hypercritical."

Green Chimneys, like Hudson Valley Visiting Pets, doesn't limit its animal programming to canines; there are farm critters, reptiles and raptors involved. "We're often asked which animal is best," says Kaufmann, "and there is no absolute answer. You'll see a dainty young girl and expect her to bond with a bunny and she goes for a big tough old cow. Some like emotional support, others empowerment—the animals offer both. And it's not just petting them—walking with them, grooming, feeding, even cleaning stalls, helps our kids transition from a person with a problem to a caretaker."

Recent discoveries about canine intelligence offers clues to just why dogs may be so outstandingly good at working with humans. Dr. Brian Hare, director of Duke University's Canine Cognition Center, generated headlines when he discovered—first by observing his own dog—that dogs pay attention and comprehend the human gesture of pointing to an object. Not even our closer genetic cousins like chimps will do that. Current theories suggest that when domestic dogs split off from their more wolfish ancestors, wolves got a lot of the speed and strength and predatory instinct almost as a consolation prize, while dogs frisked off with what may have been the most important species survival tool in evolutionary history to date: the ability to read mankind.

"Animal welfare is a big concern for therapy dogs," says Kaufmann. "Dragging around a hospital can be extremely stressful for the dog—they absorb a lot of emotional baggage. It has to be a win/win—they're living creatures, not vitamin pills. You can't, you know, 'take a dog and call me in the morning.'"

Dogged by Anger

"There was this young kid who was locked in a juvenile facility for fighting," recalls Tait, "and while he was in there the other kids beat him up and broke his ankle, so he was in custody at the hospital. They brought in a pair of Labradors and he bonded with them and it drained a lot of the aggression right out of him. He stopped obsessing over the fights and wanting revenge and being so angry with everybody. By the time he was ready to be discharged from the hospital, they saw such a change in his behavior that they let him go straight home. He told them he planned on getting a dog."

"We love to see the right raw material," says Puotenin. "Surface manners can be taught; it's the connection that's important. An obedience-trained show dog is focused on the handler. These dogs need to be able to focus on the client they're visiting—reach out to people. Our first Labrador, Samantha, was absolutely happiest visiting a locked psychiatric facility."

"It's just the greatest thing," says Trish Napolitano, volunteer coordinator at Northern Dutchess Hospital, who brought in a visiting dog program when she arrived there in 2003. "The human volunteer goes in first to make sure the patient would like a visit. Most people are delighted. They get tears in their eyes. People who've had a stroke, say, even if they can't manage it themselves, you put their hand on the dog's back and their face just lights up." Nowadays Northern Dutchess, Vassar Brothers and Putnam Hospitals all enjoy canine assistance.

"Among other things, the dog's an icebreaker. Elderly people who barely speak will start reminiscing about the dogs they've had. People in a hospital are constantly being barged in on by someone taking their blood pressure, giving them meds, poking at them. Then the volunteer shows up and all of a sudden, something wonderful is going on...In my opinion, visiting dogs are the best thing you can have in a hospital. Everyone wins."

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