Family Matters Blog: Using Man’s Best Friend to Heal the Heart
By Theresa Donnelly
American Forces Press Service
With the uncertainty in military families due to constant moves and deployments, our four-legged family members provide comfort and stability in stressful times. These loyal, furry companions not only help those serving our nation, but are ideal friends to anyone in need.
In fact, a growing body of research is backing up what pet lovers already know – canines provide therapeutic benefits for those suffering from life’s invisible scars.
In the U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, Canine-Assisted Therapy in Military Medicine April –June 2012, authors retired Marine Corps Col. Elspeth C. Ritchie and Army Col. Robinette J. Amaker write that the “acceptance of canines in Army medicine and in the civilian world has virtually exploded.” They are the chief clinical officer of Washington, D.C., Department of Mental Health, and the assistant chief of the Army Medical Specialist Corps and occupational therapy consultant to the Army Surgeon General, respectively.
The authors cite several examples, such as canines being used to help children cope with autism, shelter dogs trained as services dogs and therapy dogs that help soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Now, there is a difference between animal-assisted therapy dogs and service dogs. In 2010, The American with Disabilities Act revised its definition of service animals to be “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”
This regulation on service animals contains no stipulations on breed and even allows miniature horses under special circumstances. There’s no regulatory body for certifying service animals, nor can businesses ask for medical paperwork and/or an identification card for the dog. They can ask if the dog is required because of a disability and what work or task the dog has been trained to perform.
According to the American Humane Association, an animal-assisted therapy dog is designed to improve a patient’s social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. Pet therapy is used in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, mental institutions and prisons. It also is used in wounded warrior clinics, and veterans’ centers.
Researchers have documented the positive benefits of animal-assisted therapy. In a 2005 study, the American Heart Association found that a 12-minute visit with a therapy dog reduced blood pressure and levels of stress hormones and eased anxiety among hospitalized heart failure patients. There have been additional studies with Alzheimer’s patients, school children in reading programs and even an ongoing study at The Department of Defense’s National Intrepid Center of Excellence where at least 100 service members have participated in the canine therapy program.
Susan Luehrs is the founder of Hawaii Fi-Do, a not-for-profit that sponsors trained therapy dogs’ visits to troops at Marine and Army Wounded Warrior battalions. Here’s how she describes the dogs’ healing effects when asked about the program.
“It’s the unconditional love of the dog that makes this all possible,” Luehrs said. “They don’t care what color you are, if you can read, if you have a missing limb — they’re just there for that touch and [the dogs] give that back.”
Many organizations provide a qualifying process for pet owners to begin therapy work. One example is Tripler Army Medical Center’s Human Animal Bond Program, which collaborates with The American Red Cross and Army Veterinary Services to screen dogs through a series of temperament and health tests to verify that they’ll make good candidates for visiting hospital patients.
The growing field of pet therapy shows that professionals are seeking alternative therapies to help patients deal with stressful circumstances. As this treatment gains acceptance, more pet owners can enjoy pet therapy as a way to bond with their pets and the people they’re helping.
If you’re interested in having your family pet become a therapy animal, ask your military veterinarian if they know of any local programs or contact a few hospitals, schools, the local Humane Society or a veterans’ center. There may be several programs to choose from for just the right fit.
Guest blogger Navy Lt. Theresa Donnelly, of U.S. Pacific Command, is the owner of Hawaii Military Pets, which provides pet resources for military families. She’s offered to share her pet-related knowledge in a series of blogs for Family Matters.