Man’s Best Friend: How Dogs Help Us Heal

Golden Retriever super heroFor as long as dogs have been man’s companions, they’ve been known for their ability to relate to humans. That’s especially true of service or therapy dogs. We talked to representatives of top organizations across the country that train dogs  to help people in a variety of ways.

From providing anxiety relief for stressed-out college students and veterans with PTSD, to comforting hospital patients and tragedy victims, therapy and service animals make a big difference in many lives.

One study in the Australian Social Monitor found that a dip in doctor visits could be tied to a rise in pet ownership, which resulted in $3.86 billion in health-care cost savings over a decade. Another medical study in Public Health Reports points to pet ownership as one reason some patients lowered their blood pressure and have higher one-year survival rates following heart attacks.

No matter how big or small their roles, here are tales of service animals and some of their most impressive feats.

Medical-Alert Aids

A medical-alert service dog is trained to detect changes in its owner’s condition, alert them to those changes, retrieve a medical kit and get help when needed, explains Maria Ikenberry, executive director of Eyes Ears Nose & Paws, a nonprofit organization that trains and places assistance dogs. It’s not surprising that these dogs and their owners become very attached, she says.

Ikenberry recalls the case of a diabetic client who experienced a seizure-like episode. His blood sugar dropped to a level at which he couldn’t move, putting him in danger of further hypoglycemia. Recognizing the situation, his service dog immediately went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, found a juice box and brought it to him. “He credits his dog with saving his life that night,” Ikenberry says.

Another patient with Tourette’s syndrome was unable  to attend a full day of school without experiencing involuntary tics. A service dog named Mack was trained to lie across  her midsection when she felt an attack coming on. This therapy helped reduce  the length of her attacks from hours to minutes.

Mobility Assistance

Picking up a dropped item, opening a door, maneuvering a wheelchair and other tasks can be nearly impossible for people with disabilities. A mobility assistance dog can be lifesaving in these instances.

“Having worked in the assistance dog industry for more than 20 years, I could fill pages and pages with stories,” says Deb Davis, the community outreach manager at Paws With a Cause, an assistance dog provider.

Davis tells the story of a woman with a rare physical disability that compromised her mobility. After becoming light-headed one day and falling and hitting her head, the woman had her dog Argon go get her phone, allowing her to call for help before passing out. “The ER doctor said that she might have bled to death, had it not been for Argon,” says Davis.

Smiles For Hospital Patients

Patients in hospitals face a host of anxieties, but dogs can provide support that is essential to the patients’ well-being. At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Casey McGuire, the associate director of volunteer services, oversees their Barbara Cowen POOCH Volunteer Program. POOCH (Pets Offering Ongoing Care and Healing) facilitates regular hospital visits from more than 40 volunteers and their dogs.

“A patient who hadn’t responded to any stimulus showed signs of reactions when he petted a German shepherd that sat next to him on the bed,” recalls McGuire. Research from the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University shows that anxiety levels of patients are greatly reduced after even  brief interactions with a dog prior to procedures, and has found that the pups benefit the staff as well: The research found that the stress hormone cortisol is significantly reduced after only five minutes with a therapy dog.

Grief Relief For Tragedy Victims

Comfort dogs are different from therapy dogs. They specialize in helping victims cope after tragedies like mass shootings or natural disasters.

After the recent attack in Orlando, Fla., Lutheran Church Charities flew a team of K-9 comfort dogs to aid the families of victims following the shooting that took nearly 50 lives. These dogs play a great role in helping provide companionship and comfort for family members, says Tim Hetzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities, which has 130 comfort dogs in 23 states. The dogs sent to Orlando have their own business cards and even Facebook pages so people can stay in touch with them afterward.

“While you’re not supposed to pet some service dogs, our vests say ‘pet me’—we’re there to hug, to show mercy and compassion to as many people as possible,” Hetzner says.

Have a furry, four-legged friend?  Help offset costly veterinarian bills with affordable pet insurance through the GEICO Insurance Agency.

By Nicole Cherie Jones

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