The connection between humans and dogs is one that hearkens back to ancient and even prehistoric times. Archaeological evidence of canine domestication dates back some 15,000 years, and some experts believe our interspecies love affair may stretch as far back as 30,000 years ago.
While there is still some debate about just how long we humans have been vulnerable to the charms of big, sad puppy eyes and fluffy tummies, there is no question that our relationship with these animals has evolved greatly over the ages. In the earliest days, dogs helped with hunting and guarding in exchange for a share of the food and the comforts of life in a mixed-species pack.
Today, dogs are primarily cherished companions—four-legged family members. But there are still many who pull their weight by providing all kinds of valuable services to the humans they love.
What is a service animal?
According to ADA documentation, the federal definition of a service animal is, “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.”
But the reality of what these animals mean to their human companions goes well beyond the clinical term.
Traditionally, the term “service dog” has most often been associated with either specialized dogs trained to guide people who are blind or vision impaired, or—in more recent years—assist people prone to seizures. There is a much broader category of pet therapy, however, which focuses on the more general physical, mental, and emotional benefits of interacting with dogs and other animals.
The benefits of pet therapy
Pet therapy is excellent for senior citizens for many reasons. Studies have shown that spending as little as fifteen minutes in the company of an animal can help reduce a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels. This is the result of a neurological chemical reaction that lowers cortisol (our fight-or-flight hormone) and raises serotonin (that feel-good hormone that helps reduce anxiety). There has even been some research that indicates long-term relationships with animals can reduce cholesterol levels, vulnerability to depression, and even risk of heart disease.
Apart from these internal benefits, there are many other more obvious benefits of pet therapy:
● Animals help us stay more active (especially dogs who need walks).
● Caring for them helps increase both mobility and a sense of accomplishment.
● The unconditional love of an animal provides a major boost to self esteem and an overall sense of well being.
● And animal companions can also help the elderly maintain and even expand their social interactions.
There are several ways for older people to enjoy the experience and benefits of pet therapy. Pet ownership is, of course, the most obvious; but if that is not a viable choice, there are other types of pet therapy programs that work with senior centers, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes to give seniors the opportunity to engage with furry friends even if they don’t have their own. In addition, there are a variety of animal-assisted therapies that pair patients with horses, dolphins, and other highly sensitive animals who can provide more intensive support for unique issues.
Dogs are also now specifically trained to help dementia and Alzheimer’s patients live fuller and more independent lives. A specially-trained service dog can help these individuals and their families by:
● Preventing the patient from leaving their home without a chaperone
● Accompanying the patient if they do manage to leave their home unattended, remaining with them for comfort and protection while barking for help
● Guiding the patient home on command and also offering loved ones the ability to track the patient via a GPS tracker in the dog’s collar
These highly intelligent and devoted dogs can also assist with the tasks of daily living such as waking their owners in the morning, bringing them medication, and providing physical support for activities such as sitting, standing, and climbing or descending stairs.
If the idea of pet therapy in any of its many forms sounds like a good idea for you or someone you love, there are many available resources that can help you find out about programs near you:
And, if you think your four-legged family member might enjoy the experience of being a visiting therapy pet, you may want to check out these programs:
ASPCA Therapy Animal Program
The American Kennel Club (AKC)
Whether you enjoy the company of an animal as a pet, a therapy animal, or a service animal, there is no question that the experience will be a positive one in your life. Dogs, cats, horses, and other non-human creatures have much to offer and much to teach us.