My children had an opportunity to observe the natural cycle of life as they watched our dogs. They saw them change from birth into young playful puppies. Then came the learning and training years. When my daughter was ten years old, she helped train and show dogs. She developed a deep bond with her dog, learning patience and taking pride in her accomplishments. When her dog was bred and gave birth, our daughter was there. She nurtured the mother and watched her teach and care for her puppies. Finally, she helped place the puppies in new homes and educated their owners. When our dogs aged, our kids helped them up and down the stairs and made special soft food treats for them.
Eventually, they experienced the death of a family member. Now, our grown children, with children of their own, realize the value pets brought to their lives. All now have dogs in their own families.
Animal companions never judge our actions or moods. At the end of the day they listen to us, sometimes with eyes closed, but still listening. They are our utmost confidants, never betraying our secrets. Research shows that touching and talking to pets reduces stress and lowers blood pressure. Walking and playing with them provides both exercise and enjoyment.
Although it may seem new, animal therapy has been around for centuries. Animals can help patients who are lonely, have problems with trust or are severely depressed. Some dogs can sense when a seizure is about to strike, or smell abnormal cells on the body. Time spent with pets may even reduce the need for medication.
Calgary’s Pet Access League Society (PALS) offers an example of animals helping to heal. The PALS program involves animal visitation. Family pets are carefully screened to make certain they are friendly, obedient and suited to this type of work. Volunteers and their pets visit day programs, nursing and group homes, hospitals, even a correctional facility. Animal visitation often helps those whom other types of therapy fail. Most receiving pet therapy are seniors, although children, teens and adults also benefit.
When I was a volunteer with PALS I witnessed many magical moments when patients who no longer responded to human contact would talk to and stroke my dogs. It seemed as if only they were worthy of their time and attention. One brain-damaged young adult, who could not move or talk, would slightly move her fingers while trying to smile and coo at my dogs. The nursing staff said the girl only tried to communicate with others during visits with the PALS team.
Many patients with dementia quieted down and become less agitated while they watched the dogs. It was as though the animals held the key to their private worlds. Animals seem to be able to go places that, occasionally, we cannot.
Some dogs seem to naturally sense those who need special love and attention. A friend placed a young puppy with an autistic child. The relationship worked out better than even the child’s mother had hoped. Child and puppy were inseparable. More amazingly, the dog sensed that loud noises bothered the child. This puppy, less than one year old, had never had any training other than that required for the show ring. Still, it would gently steer the child away from noise and commotion.
A variation on pet therapy is called animal-assisted therapy, or AAT. It usually involves one-on-one visits with an animal and a skilled therapist, who work with the patient to improve physical or mental function. Such therapists are certified and set specific goals to be met using AAT.
Although they take much time and energy, a good relationship with an animal can make both person and pet healthier and happier. The unconditional love, loyalty, protection and companionship of our animals are no small gifts. Small wonder pet owners live longer!
Pet ownership is not for everyone. Think carefully before deciding to become a pet owner. Many different types of pets are available, and choosing any pet requires research. Do some soul searching to ensure that the one you choose will meet your needs. Consider the following questions: