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Pet Therapy: A Personal Story
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith
Pets & Humans
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The strong bond that can occur between people and dogs can help individuals with various psychiatric disorders.

I am a clinical social worker working at Wausau Hospital's Behavioral Health Services in Wausau, Wisconsin. We have started to use pet therapy and have found it to be very effective with patients who are depressed, feel isolated and hopeless, and those who have low self esteem or feel no one cares about them. A pet is nonjudgmental and can provide instant unconditional love and attention.

A dog can draw out people who have problems communicating. Dogs communicate on an instinctual, nonverbal level that people who have difficulty communicating verbally can relate to. It can take us days to try to engage some patients in conversation. But bring in a pet therapy dog, and many patients begin to engage almost immediately. It opens doors for us and our patients. It helps patients to participate in therapy sooner. And the dog is not placing any expectations or demands on the person. The dog is there strictly to comfort the patient. Having the dog respond in a positive manner helps people feel better. With the dog there, patients want to talk about the animal; that leads to conversation about what is going on in their lives, and helps us engage patients in constructive therapy.

When I come into the hospital without my dogs and see a patient, I am nothing more than a total stranger. The patients don't know what kind of person I am. When I go into a session with a therapy dog, I am viewed as a 'safe' person, someone who is kind and caring. The patients can identify with me through the dog. It really works.

Studies have shown that low key tactile stimulation - stroking something, soft like a dog's fur - tends to calm a person, lowering blood pressure. We know from studies that dogs not only can lower blood pressure and heart rate, but they can also be excellent tools to help people feel less depressed.

Mr. Zaglifa with his dog, ZoeOne of my dogs is named Zoe; she is an Australian Shepherd. She is a certified pet therapy dog who helps patients both individually and in group therapy sessions. Certified pet therapy dogs like Zoe must pass rigorous training established by Pet Therapy International, Inc. They must not only pass an obedience test, but also a temperament test that simulates what a dog might encounter in a medical environment. For example, the dogs have to demonstrate their ability to approach patients who are in wheelchairs or on crutches. In one test, a metal pan is dropped behind the dog while the dog is being petted to see how the dog might react to unexpected loud noise.

Let me give you an example of how pet therapy can work. There was a patient on the unit who was not talking, who would lie in bed and not come out of her room. We would invite her to all the therapy groups and all the activities throughout the day, but she just didn't want to participate. Her psychiatrist recommended that we try our therapy dog. She sat down with Zoe and she began petting her. The next thing we knew we were engaged in conversation with the patient. She began talking about her past and things that were happening now.

The next day our goal was to help this patient become more active by going for a walk. After she spent some time with Zoe, we asked if she would like to take her for a walk. She replied she'd like that very much. So we went for a nice leisurely walk. From that day forward, that patient participated in all our groups.

Just as some people have a 'special way with animals,' it appears some animals have a 'special way with people.' When a patient is having difficulty walking, Zoe will slow down. She'll watch the patient. She seems to know when a patient doesn't want to be approached. There was one instance in which Zoe kept putting her nose on the hand of one particular patient. Then she'd back off and wait. She did this again and the third time she did it, the patient reached down and began petting her. At that point the therapy session with this patient really took off. I don't think I could have come up with that timing, but Zoe did.

The dogs not only help my patients, they help me as well. I rely on my pets to offset the sometime negative effects of seeing so many personal tragedies in my line of work. When I go home, I tend to take my work and the problems of my patients with me. So, on getting home at, say, 2 am, I have one of my dogs sit next to me and I stroke her. After a short period of time, I am mellowed out and capable of getting some sleep.

As we observe time and again, pets have a healing touch no one else can duplicate. Their nonjudgmental, sensitive ways are something we can all try to emulate.

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