Adults who patted cuddled or played with dogs after joint replacement surgery required less pain medication and recovered faster than those who didn’t.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can have a positive effect on a patient’s psychosocial, emotional and physical well being, according to a study presented at the 18th Annual Conference of the International Society of Anthrozoology held recently in Kansas City, Missouri, USA.
The presenter, Julia Havey, a nurse and senior systems analyst at the Department of Medical Center Information Systems, Loyola University Health System, has worked with Dr. Frances Vlasses, associate professor and chair of Health Systems Management and Policy, Loyola University Chicago Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, for almost 10 years, training puppies to be assistance dogs for a not for profit group, Canine Companions for Independence (CCI).
She said the data they had gathered over that period of the interaction between patients and dogs, particularly patients having joint replacement therapy, “support these benefits and build the case for expanding the use of pet therapy in recovery.”
Animal Assisted Therapy
Recovery after surgery is not the only way in which dogs can help people gain better health and well-being. Dogs can give assistance to people with disabilities, or help war veterans recover from trauma.
In hospitals and nursing homes, they can reduce the patient’s pain or help them gain more strength after a stroke.
“Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) or pet therapy is a generic use of animals (usually a dog) as emotional support tools in a facility setting,” Ms. Havey said.
A typical hospital-based AAT program has a two-hour shift per dog with an average visit time per patient of from five to 15 minutes.
“AAT can be more than just a visit, as staff can use the animal in a directed fashion, such as having a patient pet the dog using a hand that is impaired by stroke or walking with the dog to distract them from pain.”
Dr. Vlasses added that, as nurses, she and Ms. Havey are committed to improving the quality of life for others. “This service experience has provided us with a unique way to combine our love for animals with care for people with special needs,” she said.
Dogs are Skilled in Service and Empathy
The two nurses get the pups at 8 weeks from the CCI breeding program and look after them for about 15 months in their own homes. They are responsible financially for the puppy’s health and welfare and are also responsible for teaching basic obedience and socialization.
Then the pups – usually Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and Labrador Golden crosses – go back to CCI for their specialized training either as skilled companion dogs to assist people with disabilities, or to work in facilities such as hospitals, schools or aged care facilities.
The dogs are bred to be calm, reliable and affectionate. “These breeds offer the characteristics well suited to service work i.e. work ethic, strength, interest in retrieving,” Ms. Havey said.
“Within these breeds, it is temperament that contributes to success more so then the breed.
“Where a dog is placed is dependent on the needs of the individual and the dog’s talents and temperament. This match is done by CCI’s professional trainers who work with the dogs for six months prior to graduation.”
Trained to Meet Special Needs
The young dogs receive about six months training at CCI, so they have learned about 40 commands by the time they graduate. These commands range from basic obedience to opening doors, helping individuals dress, picking up items such as dropped pens or mobile phones, pulling wheelchairs, and helping people to relax.
They are then streamed as either facility animals or skilled companion dogs. Facility dogs are trained to work with a professional in a visitation, education or health-care setting. They can perform more than 40 commands designed to motivate, rehabilitate or soothe clients with special needs.
Once a dog is assigned to an individual as a skilled companion dog, it will receive extra training specifically developed to meet the needs of an individual or program.
The dog and the new owner are trained with the help of a facilitator, generally, a parent, spouse or caregiver who handles and cares for the assistance dog and encourages a strong bond between the recipient and the dog.
CCI assistance dogs help people with every disability except blindness; they work with people with autism, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, and Down’s syndrome, reducing their reliance on other people to complete simple daily tasks.
They also work with war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, providing emotional support and helping them to relax.
Assistance Dogs Need Financial Support
Skilled companion dogs and facility dogs provide people suffering from illness, trauma or disability with physical, emotional and psychosocial support every day of their working lives.
CCI provides these dogs free of charge to individuals, although each dog is worth about $45,000 when it graduates. The individual teamed up with a dog doesn’t own the animal, which continues to belong to CCI, but is responsible for the dog’s health and welfare.
A CCI assistance dog or facility dog usually works for about nine years – a good working life. Then they are retired and might be adopted by the individual, family members or by their original puppy-raiser.
The largest non-profit provider of assistance dogs in the US, CCI is a not for profit organization and is dependent on philanthropy to continue providing assistance dogs to people all across the country.