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Man’s Best Friend: Dog Ownership Proven To Reduce Blood Pressure, Other Health Risks

Pediatric, Veteran Hospital Patients Benefit From Therapy Dogs’ Unconditional Love

By Tiffany Rider - Senior Writer

May 22, 2012 - Author Louis Sabin once said, “Even the tiniest poodle is lionhearted, ready to do anything to defend home, master and mistress.” He also said, “No matter how little money and how few possessions you own, having a dog makes you rich.”

In Western culture, dog is known as man’s best friend. Research shows that snuggling up with Fido and taking Spot for a walk is not only good for the dog, but good for human health as well. Having a dog around has shown to improve people’s physical, emotional, cognitive and social wellness.

Therapy Dog Volunteer Alan Shadbourne and his 12-year-old Australian Shepherd, Cruz,
visit 12-year-old patient John Rocha at Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach.
(Photograph by the Business Journal’s Thomas McConville)

Dr. Ferdinand Arcinue, staff psychologist and clinical coordinator at California State University, Long Beach’s Counseling and Psychological Services, related the health benefits of pet ownership to that of added responsibility. “Giving someone responsibility makes him or her feel important. It makes them feel like they’re doing good,” Arcinue said. “When you’re taking care of a pet, you’re getting love and affection in return. There’s something about having responsibility, having commitment, doing service for someone else that makes people feel good.”

From a holistic or wellness perspective, taking care of yourself physically is also going to have mental health benefits, and vice versa – being healthy mentally can help lower your blood pressure, lower your level of stress. “It’s all tied together,” Arcinue said. “With depression patients, a lot of times suggestions would be to do volunteer work. If you’re doing something good for others, it will make you feel good in return. I could see the same interaction with a pet. If you’re being a good owner and you’re giving love and affection to a pet, it will make you feel good.”

According to WebMD.com, it takes just 15 to 30 minutes with a pet to reduce anxiety and stress levels, which impact the body’s overall wear-and-tear. In that time, the body endures physical changes that impact mood. The levels of the stress hormone cortisol are reduced, and more of the “happy” chemical serotonin is produced.

Eric Hatch, co-owner of Wags to Whiskers Pet Grooming and LaunderPet in Long Beach, shadowed a team of animal-assisted therapy volunteers visiting a hospital several years ago. He said the experience of watching the way patients responded when people entered their room with dogs was amazing.

“It’s true – studies show that living with pets helps reduce blood pressure, reduces anxiety, boosts our immunity. It’s pretty amazing,” Hatch said. “I live with my two dogs, so I know that first hand. They have improved my life.”

Dr. Greg Perrault, owner of Cats & Dogs Animal Hospital and vice chair of the Long Beach Board of Health and Human Services, described dogs as a biofeedback meter – a device that measures physical reactions to stress, monitoring changes in stress levels – in your house.

“There have been studies that [dogs] are better than chimpanzees, which are highly intelligent animals, at understanding our body language. That’s how they have been evolved and domesticated – to learn to read us in nonverbal ways,” Perrault said. “Dogs can pick up if you’re sad or excited or fearful. If you’re afraid, your dog is going to be a little afraid. We see that on a daily basis with dogs.”

In one case known to Perrault, a dog was able to detect cancer in its owner. About a year after a client of his had a single mastectomy after breast cancer, her dog began to pester her and nudge at her remaining breast. The relentless effort of the dog to bring attention to the breast caused the woman to go back to her doctor to be screened. While her doctor cleared her of having cancer, the dog continued to pester. “She went for a second opinion, and they found cancer in the other breast,” Perrault said. “So she had the other breast removed and it saved her life. They got it before it had spread, and her dog stopped bothering her after she had her breast removed. That’s maybe an extreme case, but that’s one of the most dramatic things I’ve seen.”

Because canines are nonjudgmental, Perrault said they are happy to let you be the boss. In addition, owning a dog can help make you a more social person. “You walk your dog down the street and suddenly people are coming up to you,” he said. “There is a reason for them to come up to you and comment on your dog, whereas otherwise if you’re just walking past each other you might not even say, ‘Hi.’ It’s a way in to real social networking – not computer social networking.”

Dr. Larry McDaniel, DVM for Purina’s “Animal Instincts” podcast series online, said in a statement that pet ownership encourages not only health but social interaction as well. For example, people with dogs take more walks, which means they are getting more exercise and more opportunities for social interaction. Dogs need to be walked every day. The recommended length for a (leashed) dog walk varies, but on average the stroll should last an hour.

Perrault agreed. “People who live downtown in high rises or apartments and don’t really have a backyard to stick the dog in must walk that dog several times a day. Well, guess who walks that dog? The owner. Two or three 30-minute walks is what doctors recommend for people, so that’s almost a no-brainer.”

When at rest, snuggling with your pooch has been proven to help reduce stress and lower blood pressure. “Pets are also good for your emotional well-being,” McDaniel stated. “One study shows that pet owners with AIDS are less likely to suffer from depression than AIDS patients without pets. And several studies indicate that older people with pets use doctors less and can tolerate being alone more. Their morale is higher and they seem to stay healthier. So it’s just one more reason to be thankful for your faithful companion.”

Those with a physical injury or disability may have a more difficult time with the responsibilities of pet ownership. However, these individuals can benefit from therapy dogs or service dogs. Service dogs are different from therapy dogs in that they are typically assigned to someone with a physical disability, like blindness, to work for that specific person.

Service dogs may also be paired with individuals diagnosed with autism to help with emotional contact and emotional learning, and sufferers of frequent panic attacks or panic disorder. These dogs are legally allowed to accompany the person essentially anywhere – from airplanes to classrooms.

Therapy dogs have been registered and are volunteered by their owners to bring joy or encouragement to the sick, the injured, the elderly and even stressed out college students. Claudette Adkins, on the board of directors for Paws 4 Healing Animal-Assisted Therapy, teaches workshops for those interested in registering their pet. “The medical field highly believes in it,” Adkins said. “They want them everywhere. They work in all levels of medical facilities.”

Adkins works with groups of potential animal-assisted therapy volunteers to form teams to be trained and registered. In a typical eight-hour workshop, participants learn all about animal-assisted therapy before their pet is even involved. “We teach them what it’s all about, and then they take an evaluation when they think their pet partner is ready to go,” Adkins said.

The first half of the registration test is basic canine good citizenship, which measures how well a pet responds to its owner’s commands and to ensure there is a partnership in place. The second half of the test is aptitude. “What we do is we set up several scenarios to find out how much stress the animal will take, based on what could happen in a facility,” Adkins said. “For instance, I might ask someone to walk their dog up and down the hallway while people walk by, someone in a wheelchair goes by, someone in a walker goes by and so on.” If they pass the test, the team is insured for liability. Only then are they allowed to go into the facilities with the animal. “It’s all free; we don’t charge and we are all volunteers,” Adkins said.

At Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach, therapy dogs are used for a variety of health benefits to ill or injured pediatric patients. According to Rita Goshert, clinical operations manager for the child life program at the hospital, therapy dogs have been used to enhance a patient’s ability to progress toward physical and psychological wellness.

“Our primary goal is to normalize this crazy, scary environment for pediatric patients and their families. I think everybody would agree that the hospital environment is scary, even for adults,” Goshert said. “It helps the patients, it helps the family and it also helps the staff. . . . We deal with some tough situations, so we need our morale boosted here and there, too.”

All therapy dogs at the hospital are registered by Pet Partners, formerly the Delta Society, and have been trained and tested prior to hospital visits. These therapy dogs wear vests and a name badge affixed to the collar or vest that prove their certification during hospital visits. In addition to the registration, all therapy dogs become official volunteers for the hospital.

To become a hospital volunteer, the dogs and their owners must complete background checks, medical clearance and hospital orientation. As a rule, the hospital requires all therapy dogs to be bathed within 24 hours of a visit. Patients are also required to wash their hands before and after petting or cuddling with a therapy dog. Goshert said these rules are in place to maintain the cleanliness and sanitation of the hospital rooms, and to keep both the patients and the dogs healthy.

The hospital currently schedules therapy dog visits for almost every day of the week, to either the playroom area to meet with several patients at once or to individual patient rooms at their bedside. “The visits consist of everything from just a visit, when the dog comes in and greets a patient; to a child who is so upset and scared, and we slowly bring the dog in and eventually get the child warmed up to petting the dog and eventually hugging the dog, helping with their emotional state that way; to even helping children with physical therapy, using the dog to encourage them to walk,” Goshert said.

Therapy dogs visit the Veterans Affairs Long Beach Healthcare System, and have been doing so for more than a decade, according to recreation therapist Craig Holmes. The animal-assisted therapy program at the VA Long Beach allows volunteers to walk certified therapy dogs through the wards for bedside visits, as well as through the community living center – the hospital’s long-term care facility.

Holmes described the animal-assisted therapy program as “a controlled environment with a definitive purpose; allowing the dogs to spend quality time with patients and having some therapeutic goals from that action.” The VA Long Beach requires certification through either Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs International, Inc. Both organizations require re-certification every two years, hospital orientation and registration as a volunteer.

“I’ve seen first hand how excited some patients get and how it has upped their spirits,” Holmes said. “I think that’s the most important thing, that the patients are able to reconnect and feel their emotions through that moment of man and dog bonding.” Holmes encourages people to certify their dogs as animal-assisted therapy volunteers. For more information about the program, call Holmes at 562/826-8000, extension 4289.