Animal lovers know that pets make them feel good. That’s why service animals are being used beyond just guide dogs. They’re now part of behavioral therapy and rehabilitation work, as well as therapeutic efforts to help people deal with anxiety and stress. Animals have even been helpful with medication alerts.
They’ve also been used during tragedies, including after the Sandy Hook shootings and Boston Marathon bombings. A group of trained dogs is on the scene in Orlando, in an attempt to provide some sense of comfort to the injured and others affected by the attack.
Research has shown that animal-assisted therapy can reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a number of health problems. The Mayo Clinic’s Caring Canines program, which includes more than a dozen dogs, is used with patients in long-term care facilities, patients receiving cancer therapies, patients hospitalized with chronic heart failure, children undergoing dental procedures, and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 1980, registered nurse Shirley Sheldon lobbied for the use of therapeutic pets in New York state hospitals while she was working at Willard Psychiatric Center near Seneca Lake. Sheldon worked with administrators in Albany to allow pets in the Psychiatric Center to calm patients.
Once the program was in place, Sheldon noted that the pets would seem to seek out patients who were sick, almost as if to comfort them. The program was successful, paving the way for other institutions to use pet therapy.
Mike Monagan, of Canandaigua, raises and trains Pomeranians for several types of pet-therapy purposes. He has trained dogs to detect when a person’s blood-sugar levels are off and to alert the person, to alert when Parkinson’s medication is due, and to respond when other medications need to be taken or have been missed.
Monagan got involved with service dogs when he noticed one of his therapy dogs sensed when a client was about to have a seizure. He worked for 21 years in the mental health field, and in that time he found that having a therapy dog at work reduced anxiety among patients.
Marsha Allen, the executive director of Vineyard Surround Care Program in Rochester, uses Monagan’s Pomeranians in her work. Every Sunday she takes the Vineyard Youth Empowerment Choir into nursing homes, and she brings service dogs for pet therapy visits with the residents. Allen says the dogs are a big hit for the nursing home residents, helping to decrease anxiety and stress.
In nursing homes and hospitals alike, family members and friends who visit loved ones report that they feel better, too, when a therapy animal is present. So the benefits have a ripple effect.