DIAGNOSIS – ANXIETY, PSYCHOLOGICAL DISTRESS; TREATMENT – DOG THERAPY

“Outside of a dog, a book is probably man’s best friend, and inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
Groucho Marx

“If you are a host to your guest, be a host to his dog also.”
Russian Proverb

F. Salvochea said, ” The love for animals, enhances the cultural level of the people.” This certainly rang true for me as two incidents made me rethink my attitude towards dogs recently.  I have a healthy respect for them.  I had them as pets growing up – the hybrids and the mongrels.  However, these furry friends were kept outside in the kennels or in the yard.  Not in the house.  As the children of the house, our responsibilities were to feed them and care for them on the weekends when we were home and not occupied with assignments from school.  It was my parents’ way of teaching us responsibility.  I also have to say that the only time that we took them out with us was when we were bringing a new puppy home with us, or we had to take them to the vet.  My cultural experience allowed me to embrace them that far.  As an adult, I had friends who kept house dogs like schitzus and chihuahuas.  I could pet them, allow them to put their paws on my lap, but never a roll around on the ground, full-slobbered petting.    But, with travel and immersion experiences within another culture, you are forced to confront the limitations of your cultural experiences.  You essentially have to entertain your guest, and entertain his furry friend also.

So walk with me through two culturally awakening experiences.  First, we were out running errands and stopped in a store to pick up some items.  Around the corner comes this huge German Shepherd walking slightly ahead of her owner.  The dog heads directly to my friend and stops to sniff at her.  I stand frozen and puzzled because this huge dog is standing in the middle of a store sniffing at my friend.  The owner apologizes and explain that she is a therapy dog and that they greet people by sniffing them.  Great way to start a conversation and get an introduction.  We chat for a minute then head on our way.  But the phrase, “therapy dog” remained with me.  The second time that my context and my actors caused my senses to crosswire happened when my friend and I met up with some of her coworkers for drinks.  As we entered the establishment and headed to greet them, there was this huge white dog that stood up as we walked by a table.  As we moved around to find someone else, we passed by another huge white dog who sat quietly at his owner’s feet.  “Dogs out with their owners having drinks,” remained somewhere in the back of my mind as we enjoyed each other’s company and caught up on the work, families, and the Summer schedule.  When I thought that I had accommodated dogs in this new space, something else happened.  Just before we left, a lady brought in the most playful 20-month-old white Labrador (I think) that was so full of energy and people loving that several patrons had to come and get some loving.  They stooped on the floor to hug the dog, kiss the dog, and let the doggie kiss and slobber all over them.  One love-seeker confessed that she should not be petting her but she just could not resist.  Eventually, the lady made it to a seat after unraveling the leash that had gotten twisted up in all the energetic playing.  As we headed out, I walked by the dog and her owner and raised my hand in greeting.  That was all the signal that this playful pup needed.  The huge pup leaped with two paws on my thigh.  I did not touch the dog; but I did not jump away either.  Her owner apologized.  I replied that it was ok, waved at the doggie and headed out.  I could not get the experience out of my mind.

So, I have decided to share this exploration with you this week.  What is this fascination that people have with their dogs that they even take them out with them?  Walking your dog around the neighbourhood and to the park is one thing.  But in the store?  Out to have drinks with friends?  I have to say that the exchanges between the dogs, the owners and myself were pleasant.  The dogs were bold and friendly.  Their owners were kind once they realized that I was not freely petting their furry friend.  They were apologetic about their animal’s playfulness and willing to have a conversation.  Had I had the time it would have provided a great opportunity to find out the stories behind the dogs and their owners.  These recent experiences have given me new insight into the longstanding idiom that “A dog is a man’s best friend.”

As I conducted my research, I discovered that psychologists and other types of therapists are implementing numerous programmes with the assistance of therapy dogs.  For centuries dogs have been helping mankind to hunt, herd, track, and perform search and rescue operations.  We have also seen dogs assisting those who are physically challenged, such as leading the blind and assisting the hearing impaired.  However, correlation design research has begun to establish an empirical relationship between the bond between people and their dogs and the emotional health of humans (Therapy Dogs International, 2008-2017).  “Studies have shown that a person holding or petting an animal will cause a lowering of blood pressure, the release of strain and tension, and can draw out a person from loneliness and depression” (Therapy Dogs International, 2008-2017).  Therapy Dogs International (TDI®) was founded in 1976 by Elaine Smith.  According to TDI history, the first  therapy dog visit took place in 1976 in New Jersey with five handlers and six dogs (5 German Shepherds and 1 Collie).  “TDI was formed so that dogs could be tested, certified, insured, and registered as volunteer Therapy Dogs” (Therapy Dogs International, 2008-2017).  Today, therapy dogs can be found in a variety of settings including schools, churches, hospitals, rehabilitation centres, nursing homes and more (Therapy Dogs International, 2008-2017).

A therapy dog is a particularly “calm, nonaggressive, obedient, well-groomed canine who has been trained to interact in behaviorally healthy ways with people and other dogs in a variety of educational and health-care settings. The goal of human interaction with these dogs is to provide the positive neurophysiological effects that have been documented in the research(Levinson, Vogt, Barker, Jalongo, Zandt, 2017, p. 39).  Among the positive neurophysiological effects demonstrated by research on humans and dogs are: reductions in the outward signs of stress (e.g., increased heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration); reciprocal hormonal effects in the production of the “feel good” hormone, oxytocin and the reduction of the stress hormone, cortisol.  The response of humans to therapy dogs suggest that the effects continue to be positive.

For example, research on the use of therapy dogs in educational settings has helped to corroborate the existing literature on the impact of therapy dogs on human behaviour.  One such programme is the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) programme.  The R.E.A.D.

program began in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the mission “to improve the literacy skills of children in a unique approach employing a classic concept: reading with a dog” (Massengill Shaw, 2013, p. 365).  Since then, the R.E.A.D. programme has expanded across the world.  “Currently, there are approximately 3,000 volunteer teams serving in 49 of the 50 states, 4 provinces in Canada, and 59 teams in Europe and elsewhere around the world, with registrations increasing daily” (Massengill Shaw, 2013, p. 365).  Typically, a handler and a dog who have been trained, evaluated, and registered comprise a registered licensed therapy team.  “This means the dogs have been tested for health, safety, skills, and temperament” (Massengill Shaw, 2013, p. 365).  Therapy dogs are also used in gifted programmes to challenge gifted children and to assist them in exploring their abilities  A study by Friesen (2013) demonstrated how reading and writing with a dog helped to nurture her student’s unique brilliance in an otherwise constrictive school experience.

Samuel Butler once said, “The great pleasure of a dog is that you make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, he will make a fool of himself too.”  Such is the wisdom of educators and reading specialists who employ a therapy dog.  Educators have discovered that some of the children with reading challenges have trouble reading publicly because of the fear that their peers will laugh at them.  Not so with this furry friend.  At scheduled times, the student will leave their classroom and go to the reading specialist.  There, they will sit on the floor with their furry friend, usually with one arm around the animal, and the free hand used to hold the book and turn the pages.  Without fear of judgment, the student reads the assigned passages to the dog who always looks interestingly at the pages, listens attentively and will cuddle with the student.  If the student makes a mistake there are no giggles from an audience.  The furry friend permits the error and provides soft comfort.

So, the next time that you happen to see a man’s best friend in an unusual place, think of all the benefits that they are providing to society.  Think about the places where they are contributing to emotional health and relieving psychological distress.  Consider how confident they are in their ability to provide comfort.  Then think of a warm response for when their confident owner apologizes for their friend’s exuberance.  After all, it has also been said, that “The purity of a person’s heart can be quickly measured by how they regard animals.”

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