We all understand the calming effect our dogs can have on us, we see it every day whether it’s going for walks or snuggling at night.
So it’s not surprising dogs are being used more frequently to heal and comfort humans in distress.
1. Furry Counselors
Dogs are increasingly being used to reassure victims of natural disasters or for less traumatic uses like brightening the day of a nursing home patient.
In children’s hospitals it is common to bring in dogs as a form of therapy, especially for the terminally ill. Professionals have noted children talk directly to the dogs as they have excellent listening skills, and demonstrate unconditional love. They don’t judge you or talk back.
A common human response in crisis situations is feeling obligated to give advice, when really, those in pain just need to express themselves.
2. No judgement
The idea of sending a dog to a grieving person might seem too simple. But that very simplicity is part of what makes the connection between humans and canines so powerful.
When humans show affection, it involves expectations and judgements, with a dog it’s a non-challenging interaction with no consequences. In times of despair it is necessary to feel free to express emotions without repercussion.
3. The Human-Canine Bond
The human-canine bond goes back thousands of years. Dogs descend from wolves and have been attracted to humans ever since we began living in settlements, we were in effect a source of food.
An advantage was created for wolves to live near humans, and as it tended to be the less aggressive wolves that could co-exist with the humans more effectively, they essentially self-domesticated over time.
Meaning for thousands of years the human and canine have evolved together, building a strong, instinctual bond.
4. People person (dog)
Man’s best friend is one of the only species that does not generally exhibit xenophobia, meaning fear of strangers. Ignoring cases of abuse and neglect, where the dog has learnt to fear the human.
Research has found not only are most dogs not xenophobic, they’re actually xenophilic—they love strangers! Which some could argue is far better than us humans, as we are all guilty of not being that welcoming towards others.
5. Stress relief
People benefit from interacting with canines. Petting a dog can decrease levels of stress hormones, regulate breathing, and lower blood pressure. Research also shows petting releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection, in both the dog and the human.
6. Do Dogs Have Empathy?
Dogs are social creatures that respond to our emotions. A study was conducted to see whether dogs demonstrated empathy. Volunteers were asked to either pretend to cry, or just hum. The aim of the study was to see whether the dogs would notice the difference.
Nearly all the dogs came over to nuzzle or lick the crying person, whether it was the owner or a stranger, while they paid little attention when people were merely humming.
It is not concrete evidence to suggest empathy in dogs, but I think all of us dog lovers could provide many times our dog has empathised with our needs!
Therapy in action
There are many cases of working therapy dogs, in San diego for example, ‘Pawsitive pals’ is a therapy programme used to help people in a hospice. They use dogs of all shapes and sizes, helping the patients with feelings of isolation and anxiety, especially before medical procedures.
After the Sandy hook elementary school shootings a team of therapy dogs were brought in as ‘professional comforters’. Nine trained golden retrievers and their volunteer handlers spent time visiting schools, churches, activity centers, and private homes in the community.
There is of course measures put in place to ensure the dogs don’t get tired, which means taking a break to play ball or nap after two hours of work. The k9 support team have also been called to duty in other cases, such as hurricane Sandy and the Boston marathon explosions.
When around dogs people suffering from injury or illness have been known to heal significantly faster, especially in cases with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The comfort a dog provides is useful for people suffering with mental health problems as well, at a time when they feel isolated from society, a dog is accepting of them, flaws and all.
In Puerto Rico a Siberian Husky named Melody has become famous in the doggy world. You can find her making best friends with sick children in hospital, the terminally ill, sufferers of abuse, the mentally disabled and the elderly.
Melody is a certified therapist, after passing exams and training she is possibly the best therapy you could find. Her owner says her favourite place is the children’s hospital, where she has many friends!
It is clear the connection between human and dog makes for a wonderful relationship, with so many stories of great success between the two. Whether they be used to heal injury, illness, stress, anxiety or just loneliness, our dogs are certainly great therapists!