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Therapy dogs, more than companionship

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A patient at the HCA Day Care Center in Singapore plays with a German Shepherd dog during a pet therapy session in September 2007. Reuters

MONTEREY (Xinhua) – After doctors checked on him and a nurse gave him an infusion, Mike, a 65-year-old stroke patient, moved from his bed to a wheelchair.

Mr Mike, whose real name was not revealed for privacy, would mostly sit quietly away another dull day at the Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula (CHOMP) in Monterey, California, until Cody came in.

“He’s cute,” Mr Mike struggled with his first words in the entire morning, petting Cody with his left hand and smiling a little.

Cody is a therapy dog.

Therapy dogs are the stars when their handlers take them on visits to schools, hospitals or nursing homes. They provide both physical and mental nourishment, doing more than merely accompanying.

Cody, a 13-year-old Bichon Frise, has completed more than 700 hours of visits at the hospital and a local nursing home in Monterey over the past 12 years.

The youngest patient he has visited was a three-year-old boy from Spain who was hospitalised in 2014, said Julianne Craig, Cody’s owner and the coordinator of the CHOMP therapy dog programme.

Without disclosing the Spanish boy’s conditions, Mr Craig recalled he was too sick to be willing to talk. “The boy was lying there, and you could tell he was seriously ill, very sad.”

Mr Craig placed Cody on bed next to the toddler. To cheer up the boy, Mr Craig guided Cody to do some tricks. Cody did a hula dance, spinning around with his front paws up in the air. But he wobbled around due to the lumpy bedding, and watching this, the little boy sat up and started talking in Spanish, laughing.

“This was one of our most touching experiences. I can still remember his happy face,” Mr Craig said.

CHOMP started offering free dog therapy services in 1999 and now has over 30 dog teams. Among them is a three-legged Chihuahua, who is particularly welcomed by those with amputations.

“She couldn’t be more perfect for the job as she tends to evoke empathy,” Mr Craig said.

Therapy dogs have shown up at multiple public spaces, consoling vulnerable or anxious people.

A group of 13 therapy dogs visited the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to comfort the community, the day after a mass shooting killed 11 people there in late October.

Therapy dogs also have their days in Kent County courts, Michigan, to be with children and vulnerable adults testifying or talking with prosecutors.

Katherine McKee, a therapist, said dog therapy helps lower blood pressure and release endorphins that have a calming effect, and therefore, lessen the onslaught of depression. Interacting with puppies also reduces feelings of isolation, alienation, and anxiety, she said.

Ms McKee is the clinical director of College Living Experience (CLE), an organisation that provides transitional support for young adults with learning differences and various other exceptionalities. Her golden retriever Joy is a therapy dog at CLE.

Ms McKee remembered how Joy comforted a student who refused to talk or even cry after losing her grandmother.

“By petting and cuddling with Joy, the student finally let out her feelings and managed to process her grief,” said Ms McKee.

Data show nearly 10,000 therapy dogs are registered at Pet Partners, the largest non-profit organisation registering therapy dogs and other therapy animals in the United States.

A dog has to be properly trained before being registered as a therapy dog.

Ratna Anagol, a certified dog trainer, has trained more than 100 dogs that have passed the therapy dog certification at her training facility in Pacific Grove, California, over the past seven years.

“They’d better start training as puppies, or no older than 16 weeks,” she said, adding that a certified therapy dog has to be at least one year old.

According to Mr Anagol, dogs of any breed can serve as therapy dogs, but golden retrievers, golden poodles, Samoyed and Bernese are among the most easily-trained breeds.

According to register organisation Therapy Dog International (TDI), a dog has to pass 13 test items, including getting around people, resisting food temptation and reacting to unusual situations, for certification.

Despite their apparent treatment effect, therapy dogs sometimes may pose a threat to human health.

For example, a research study conducted by the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, showed that kids who spend more time with therapy dogs are more likely to be infected with the superbug bacteria called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

In CHOMP, as part of the measures to protect people from additional health threats from therapy dogs, the hospital requires handlers to present evidence of dog vaccinations, such as against rabies, and DHPP, a combination vaccine targeting four different viruses, said Brenda Moore, a communication staffer.

Dogs are prohibited from entering some hospital sections, including the intensive care unit, the infusion center, and the surgical areas.

Dog handlers need to prove they are healthy, too. CHOMP also offers free flu shots and other vaccinations to therapy dog handlers.

“Frequent visits to patients are more likely to expose ourselves to viruses and sicknesses, too,” said Mr Craig, emphasising the significance of the preventions.

While acknowledging the dog therapy effect, Mario Ruiz, director of the Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit of CHOMP, said that for example, the presence of Cody helped reduce Mr Mike’s anxiety and loneliness in the hospital.

“A hospital is not a fancy place, and patients will feel comforted by petting dogs and interacting with them,” said Mr Ruiz.

He also said Mr Mike petting Cody with his stroke-affected right hand was a good form of exercise.

Mr Mike has to stay in the hospital for another week before going home. After Cody left, Mr Ruiz said, “I hope he can come to visit again soon.”

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