Dogs That Help Us Heal

I originally wrote this post in March 2012:

Had a tough day? Don’t worry; your dog is there to make you feel better. Pet owners know that our pets provide us comfort and unconditional love, even on our worst days. Numerous studies indicate pet ownership also correlates with health benefits: lower stress, blood pressure and cholesterol. But can pets help heal more traumatic, psychological wounds? Yes. And the Chardon Schools’ grief counselors recently called on numerous therapy dogs and their owners from Partners with Paws to help students and faculty begin the long, daunting process of overcoming the emotional scars of the February 27 tragedy.

What is a therapy dog?

A therapy dog’s primary job is to interact with unfamiliar people and allow those people to handle and touch them. Some people, whether due to age or physical challenges, may be somewhat awkward in their appearance or how they touch the dog. So a good therapy dog is one that has a mild and friendly temperament: gentle, patient, and confident in unusual situations. People who aspire to have their dogs work as therapy dogs go through specialized training and are tested by either Therapy Dogs International (TDI) or Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society).

Certified therapy dogs and their humans frequently work in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, and schools. In special situations, therapy dogs are called in to assist people who have suffered traumatic events. Such is the case for a friend of mine and her certified therapy dog, Deion, who have made several visits to Chardon Schools since the schools re-opened February 29. They have visited Park Elementary, the middle school and the high school.

Helping the healing process

Therapy dogs were on hand in the schools as students returned, to offer those grappling with their feelings and experience some unconditional comfort. My friend’s experience was that the students and faculty enjoyed the unexpected surprise; many petted Deion, some hugged him. She told me of one young boy who interacted with Deion several times on one of her visits, wordlessly petting him. The boy would spend a few minutes, go back to what he was doing, and come back to pet Deion again. He repeated this pattern several times, until he eventually offered, “I’m sad.” Those first words of his seemed to be an opening and a counselor was able to engage the young boy. I won’t pretend to understand what that whole exchange with Deion did for the boy, but I hope it helped set him on the path to ease his sadness.

Healing psychological scars is a long-term process. We all deal with grief in our own way and youngsters who have not experienced trauma before in their lives are figuring it out for the first time. The schools plan to have periodic visits from therapy dogs as a way to provide this unconditional comfort throughout the long healing process. I applaud such forward thinking and compassion.

I also greatly admire and appreciate the commitment of people like my friend who see their dog’s therapeutic talent and offer their service to people who need it. In addition to the time it takes to train and certify their dog, the visits they make to hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, and schools requires extensive amounts of time. And, when called in to assist after traumatic events, both dog and human sense much of the emotional burden of the people they help. They leave their visits somber and a little drained, carrying some of that sadness with them.

What a wonderful and selfless service they provide.

Resources at your fingertips

Health Benefits of Pets: http://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/features/health-benefits-of-pets; http://stress.about.com/od/lowstresslifestyle/a/petsandstress.htm

Therapy Dog Associations: http://tdi-dog.org/; http://www.deltasociety.org/

Partners with Paws: http://partnerswithpawsohio.org/

Carol Peter is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of Cold Nose Companions, LLC Dog Training. She offers private in-home training for people and their dogs throughout Geauga County. Carol focuses on resolving problem behaviors and teaching good household manners using positive reinforcement training and behavior modification methods. She can be reached at carol@coldnosecompanions.com.

 

©2012, Carol Peter, Cold Nose Companions, LLC

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