Dogs and pets provide meaningful therapeutic benefits

A smile and a wag — the universal language of happiness.

Today I read yet another article on the healing power that dogs have for humans who have experienced trauma, in this case sexual abuse. According to a Sept. 23, 2012, story in the Seattle Times (Courthouse dogs calm victims’ fears about testifying), King County Washington’s seven-year-old practice of using assistance dogs to provide comfort to victims in a courthouse setting has been deemed legal in an appeals court ruling. I have previously written about how pets are used in prison settings, leading to better outcomes for both the state and prisoners (see my May 3, 2012, post: Cats behind bars — more proof of how pets bring out our best). I do not think it is a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the value of using therapy dogs that dogs could and should be used to assist young persons who are crime victims. They are commonly used by many people with illnesses and disabilities, like this instance with a college student who has spina bifida.

The powerful bond between humans and dogs is well-known and about as old as civilization itself.

In this particular case reported by the Seattle Times, a lab-retriever mix named Jeeter helped two female victims of molestation heal and also testify in trial, as a means to alleviate their reported fear and discomfort. The decision deemed the dog to be a neutral agent, not siding with either party in the legal process and being an equal opportunity dispenser of affection. As one of the two females victims told the Seattle Times, “What we want people to know is that they can have a dog to help them, too. We’re not ashamed about what happened. We didn’t do anything wrong.” In fact, the Seattle Times reported the National District Attorneys Association passed a resolution last year supporting the use of courthouse dogs.

Another famous instance of therapy dogs being used to assist crime victims was at the campus of Northern Illinois University, where a murderous gunman killed five students and injured nearly two dozen others in 2008.

As the final report on that gun-related massacre from NIU highlighted, in addition to more than 500 counselors who assisted victims and the campus community, there were dozens of volunteers who assisted by bringing “comfort dogs” to the NIU campus in DeKalb, Ill., after the shootings. The report noted, “many of our students hugged those wonderful dogs and wept openly, some for the first time since the tragedy.”

A wonderful book that I read this summer on the powerful bond between humans and other species called Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live, by DMV Allen Schoen, highlights how powerful this connection is, including on the health of humans and the species with whom they interact. Schoen has attracted attention for research and efforts exploring the ways science and larger culture understand how humans interact with their many animal friends. His description of his former golden retriever, who he rescued and who then became his assistant caring for his animal patients, is wonderfully touching. He eventually had to put his beloved assistant down. When I shared this book with a member of my family, she broke down into tears, thinking about her former dog.

My former grad school experience vastly improved when I moved into my new apartment and made friends my always cheery neighbor, Balloo.

Schoen has his own web site and a blog here: http://www.drschoen.com/. His web site notes that he continues to practice what he calls integrative veterinary healthcare, which brings together holistic and natural techniques such as acupuncture and homeopathy along with the best of conventional veterinary medicine to provide animal healthcare services.

There are peer-reviewed journal articles being published about the power of animals, including in the work setting, where an abundance of anecdotal reporting and research has occurred. An Associated Press story from Feb. 9, 2012, described the “growing phenomenon” of dogs in the workplace in America, according to Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Columbia. “People are realizing we need to do things to reduce stress in the workplace,” Johnson told the AP. She said dogs can build connections among co-workers and create healthy diversions from work. People interacting with dogs have a hormonal reaction that causes them to “feel more relaxed and more positive.”

All I can say is that nothing beats a dog or purr on a bad day. Even the worst day improves the moment there is that amazing interspecies contact.

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