Health Take-Away: Pets as therapists: Your dog may be just the right medicine

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Most people have experienced or at least read about the remarkable therapeutic benefits dogs can have on our emotional and even physical health, but few people realize their own dogs — no matter what breed - may be perfectly suited to become certified pet therapy animals bettering the lives of people in all sorts of challenging situations.

If your dog has the right energy and passes a basic evaluation, he or she could spend just one hour a week with you at a nursing home, hospital, day care center, funeral home, private residence or other setting and make a big difference in the health of the humans it meets. I will be sharing in this column how to get your dog properly evaluated and certified, but first, let's take a closer look at the basics of pet or animal-assisted therapy.

Dogs and other pets have long been an important source of emotional support and bonding for humans. Pet companionship has been clinically associated with improved mental, social and physical health, with numerous studies showing reductions in blood pressure, respiratory rates and levels of pain, anxiety and fatigue. In treatment settings, the controlled presence of therapy dogs has been shown to improve mood, relieve stress, provide a distraction from pain and create a comforting reminder of home.

The way it generally works is that you bring your precertified dog to a participating site, always on a leash under your watchful eye, and visit with anyone wishing to interact with the animal. You may invite people to pet or hug your dog, toss them a little treat or simply watch them as they greet others. With my own therapy dog, I've witnessed total transformations of mood. Patients who were struggling physically and psychologically suddenly had a complete change of demeanor, visibly comforted, amused and engaged by their four-legged visitor.

I've seen every type of dog, young and old, from Chihuahuas to pit bulls and golden retrievers, serving nobly as therapy pets. It's all about their energy level and individual temperament. Some dogs have it. Some don't. It's also about matching the right dog to the right setting. Some dogs are comfortable in certain places, but not in others; one dog might be totally at ease in a ward for terminally ill patients, but not crazy about a day care center with screaming children; another may thrive with kids, but be uneasy in the hospital ward. An evaluation will determine if your dog is the right fit for pet therapy and in which type of environment it would do best.

If it's something that interests you, I strongly suggest you start by visiting petpartners.org. That organization can help identify resources in your community for getting your dog evaluated and certified.

Evaluations are very straightforward. The certified experts evaluating your dog will check the animal's basic obedience skills (sit, stay, come, etc.) and mock-test its reactions to certain conditions and distractions. The focus is on determining if your pet:

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- Welcomes, not just tolerates, interactions with new people.

- Is confident in new environments and around unusual equipment and noises.

- Is well-behaved with strangers of different ages, types and genders.

- Is able to be petted and hugged without getting anxious or over-excited.

The evaluation will also test you, as the dog's handler, seeing how you manage your pet under different circumstances.

Even if you're not completely sure your dog is right for the job, I would encourage you to at least explore the possibility. You might be surprised. There's a serious shortage of pet therapy dogs in many parts of the U.S., and you and your pet truly could make a huge difference in many lives.

Terry Cormier is chairperson of the pet therapy program at Berkshire Medical Center.


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