Therapy Dogs

The benefits to your health that come from owning a dog have long been known.  But sometimes it’s even better for the elderly.  Folks who are stuck at home, living alone, and bored could be so well served by adopting a calm, older dog.

Anne Summerfield was 75 years old and alone in the world. She spent her days napping and her nights watching television. When she was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, the visiting nurse who gave her B sub 12 injections was concerned about this solitary woman, who seemed to take little interest in anything.

But when the nurse asked about a bedside photograph of a girl and a dog, Anne brightened. That was a much, much younger self with her retriever, Lindy. Anne said she had always wanted another dog, but somehow things had just never worked out.

This time, however, the nurse worked things out. She referred Anne to an animal shelter that had a program for matching the elderly with companion animals. Many local humane societies now provide this service. Anne soon had a new dog-Lindy 11, naturally-and after only a few months, she almost seemed to be a new person as well.

Lindy was an ideal “significant other.” Unconditionally loyal and affectionate, he did wonders for Anne’s morale. He gave her a sense of purpose and helped regulate her life, reminding her about mealtimes and outings. When walking Lindy, Anne began meeting neighbors and making friends. Now that she was more active during the day, she slept soundly at night.

It’s not surprising that Anne’s new dog had therapeutic value. Recent studies show that interaction with animals lowers BP, decreases stress, and has increased the survival rate for patients with severe coronary artery disease.

In fact, the bonds between animals and humans can be so strong that “pet therapy” could be considered a legitimate part of inpatient care and discharge planning.

Animals who meet specific needs

Animals also help handicapped patients lead more independent lives. Besides guide dogs for the blind, there are now hearing ear dogs. They’re trained to alert people with severe to profound hearing loss to such sounds as a baby’s cry, doorbell, alarm clock, or smoke detector.

Other assistance animals help patients who have multiple handicaps. Someone confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, for example, may get a dog that responds to as many as 90 hand signals.

An innovative program trains capuchin monkeys to help quadriplegics. These “organ-grinder monkeys” live about 30 years and are intensely loyal to their masters. They have been taught to open and shut doors, turn lights on and off, switch TV channels or books on a reading stand, and get snacks from the refrigerator. At present, demand for the agile little creatures exceeds the supply.

Besides handling physical tasks, animals help people feel less alone. For this reason companion animals are sometimes recommended for AIDS patients, who tend to become increasingly isolated as the disease progresses. The benefits of pet ownership are usually thought to outweigh the risks of infection.

Matching the animal to the patient

When Anne Summerfield called the pet placement program, she was assigned a sponsor. The sponsor evaluated her needs, helped her select Lindy, made follow-up visits to see how the two were getting along, and urged Anne to call with questions or problems.

Companion animals for handicapped people undergo a rigorous selection and training process. All pets are, of course, completely housebroken-even the monkeys, who are trained to use a litter box in the cage, where they remain when not “on call.”

The patients get extensive instruction in working with these animals and stay in touch with the supplying organization.

~Fraser, Cira. “Sometimes the best therapy has four legs.” RN June 1989: 21+.

Do you have an older relative in your life?  Do you think they would benefit from owning a dog?  Check in with local animal shelters and organizations and see what programs are on offer for matching elderly people with dogs for adoption.