Dogs have a long history of providing comfort to those in distress. Most recently, therapy dogs played an important role in comforting victims of the devastating tornado that tore through Oklahoma. The ferocious twister carved a 17-mile path of destruction, damaging up to 13,000 homes and tragically claiming at least 24 lives. Courtesy of the Lutheran Church Charities’ (LCC) K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs, 10 dogs were sent to help provide relief to victims. Tim Hetzen, president of LCC, explained how they could help:
“Our dogs stay out as long as possible to be with families to help them process their loss. A big part of processing loss is talking about it,” Hetzen said. “The dogs are great for that, because they’re great listeners, they show unconditional love, they don’t take notes and they’re confidential, so they’re great tools for people to pet. When you pet a dog, you relax. When you relax, you’re more likely to share.”
The use of therapy animals dates way back to the late 18th century, when records show that Quakers in England used animals to provide comfort to people suffering from mental illness.
Dogs in particular have proven very effective at providing comfort to the ill and infirm. During World War II, a female Yorkshire Terrier called Smoky, who had been found abandoned on a battlefield in New Guinea, became a hit with injured soldiers recovering in a hospital.
After an American corporal named William Wynne became Smoky’s new owner but fell ill with a jungle disease, Wynne’s friends decided to take his new pet into the hospital to cheer him up. The little dog proved so popular with other patients that she was allowed to go on rounds, and for the next 12 years Smoky continued working as a therapy dog.
In the 1970s, dogs were similarly used to provide relief to hospital patients. An American nurse working in England, Elaine Smith, observed how her patients reacted positively whenever the hospital chaplain visited with his Golden Retriever. Upon returning home to the U.S. in 1976, Smith founded an organization called Therapy Dogs International (TDI), which was the very first national registry of therapy dogs. Beginning with a team of six dogs – one Collie and five German Shepherds – TDI eventually expanded to more than 24,000 dog/handler teams by the new millennium.
In the U.K. today, a charity called Pets As Therapy (PAT) is the biggest provider of cats and dogs to nursing homes, hospitals, special-needs schools, hospices and care homes. Since its founding in 1983, more than 20,000 dogs have worked with the charity, providing comfort to patients and residents. Pets As Therapy currently has over 4,500 dogs – and more than 100 cats – who visit more than 130,000 people each week. The dogs are carefully chosen for their calm temperament and friendly nature. Pet parents who would like their dogs to become therapy dogs in the program can apply to PAT.
There are real physical explanations as to why contact with a therapy dog is beneficial to human mood and health. When a person strokes an animal, studies have shown that both heart rate and blood pressure are lowered. This in turn reduces stress, which is beneficial because stress can negatively impact our health.
According to studies, the human body may also release beneficial neurotransmitters and hormones when a person is interacting with a friendly and affectionate therapy dog. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that improves mood, and the hormone oxytocin is linked to increased empathy and pair bonding. Serotonin may also be boosted and endorphins released, which also help to lift a person’s mood.
And it’s not only humans who benefit from the animal therapy sessions – dogs, too, enjoy the attention and affection!
PHOTO: Brit Peacock