Therapy Dogs: Good for Patients, Nurses and Doctors

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Animal Assisted TherapyTo a terminally ill child, sitting with a golden retriever, scratching his ears and reading him a good book can provide a small escape from the traumas of shots, medication and hospitalization. That’s a huge deal.

Therapy dogs are great for comforting sick patients, but the medical profession is starting to acknowledge they can do a lot more. Lately, experts are encouraging nurses, doctors and other medical professionals to enjoy the solace of a canine companion.

That’s why we’re seeing programs like “Pet A Pooch” which puts animals in loving homes and provides relief to stressed-out nurses and doctors. Heather Matthew, a clinical nurse specialist, started the program when she realized how therapeutic it was to spend time with her bulldog Annabelle after her long days at work.

If you’re a working nurse looking to learn more about the value of animal therapy, here are some things to keep in mind:

The science of pet therapy

Humans and dogs have shared a special connection since Stone Age times. Granted, some people are allergic to dogs or don’t like to be around them, but the bond between dogs and everybody else comes fairly naturally. If you’re a dog person, imagine how refreshing it could be to spend a half-hour with one in the middle of your crazy, overwhelming 12-hour shift.

It turns out that both humans and canines benefit from their social interactions. Research shows that petting a dog can reduce stress, regulate breathing and lower blood pressure, according to National Geographic. Furthermore, showing affection to a dog releases oxytocin, the hormone associated with attachment and security, in dogs and humans alike.

If you’d like to get more involved in animal therapy

Lots of hospitals participate in animal-assistance programs. If you are interested in working at one of these hospitals, be sure to inquire about animal-therapy programs before applying.

If your hospital does not have an animal-assistance program, see if any of your colleagues are interested in collaborating to start one. Or consider becoming a volunteer animal handler.

Another option for nurses who are interested in animal-assisted therapy is to complete continuing education units (CEUs). Examples of courses could be:

  • Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)
  • Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
  • Feline and Canine Companionship in Treatment
  • Human-Animal Studies
  • Animal-Assisted Interventions
  • Animal-Assisted Social Work

Courses can help health-care professionals learn how to create, implement and evaluate animal therapy programs in hospitals, rehabilitation centers and other healing environments. Make sure the organization offering the CEUs is properly accredited before enrolling in any classes.

Who benefits from pet therapy?

Just about anybody can reap the benefits of pet-assisted therapy (unless they have allergies or a dog phobia). People who especially find comfort in animal-assisted therapy include:

  • Children recovering from surgery
  • People in cancer treatment
  • Terminally or chronically ill patients
  • Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other health issues like battlefield injuries
  • Patients with mental health disorders
  • Patients in rehabilitation centers

Pet therapy need not be confined to medical facilities. For example, stressed university students may find a small break visiting with a smiley therapy dog is just what they need before a midterm exam.

Qualifications of therapy dogs

Nurses working with therapy dogs need to be aware of the many organizations that offer certifications to eligible canines and their owners. The American Kennel Club has an extensive list of certification organizations.

The process to become a certified therapy dog is complex and exacting — and not just any dog is eligible. Many therapy dogs are pets whose owners volunteer them because they recognize how calm their dogs are around pretty much everybody, especially strangers or children.

Each certification organization has specific requirements. There are usually tests to pass, for example, observing how the dog interacts with children, in loud social situations or in a room full of people.

The Alliance of Therapy Dogs has these eligibility requirements:

  • At least 1 year of age
  • Good around other dogs
  • Listens to their handlers
  • Allows strangers to touch them all over
  • Won’t jump on people when interacting
  • Walks on a leash without pulling
  • Does not mind strange noises and smells
  • Stays calm for petting
  • Does not fear people walking unsteadily
  • Current on all vaccines required by local laws
  • Has negative fecal test every 12 months
  • Clean and well groomed
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