My first ever experience with magic came in the form of a therapy dog. My one-year old son was bundled on my lap in a nest of blankets and a hospital gown. I rocked in a chair, trying all my tricks to comfort him as he was waking up from anesthesia after a chest surgery. He must have cried for 30 minutes, my heart hurt knowing he was miserable and confused. I heard a voice in the doorway ask my husband if a dog could visit, and the next thing I knew there was a Golden Retriever resting her chin on the chair arm beside my son, looking up at him with her big dark eyes. The crying stopped instantly. “Puppy!” my son said, and that was the last of his discomfort. He was transformed back into a happy baby again, all thanks to a few moments with a Golden Retriever named Kayla.
Flash forward to another visit, when my daughter was impatient at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. We were bored, the stay was dragging on, and she was frustrated with the pokes, blood pressure checks, and the constant questions from nurse after nurse. A staff member saw me in the hall and asked if my daughter would like a dog to visit. “Yeah!” I said (I think I may have mumbled something about how I would like a dog to visit). Again, as if powered by pixie dust, a Pomeranian named Petula pitter-patted into our room. I melted. My daughter melted. Petula came up to her, sniffing her hair and her doll and being generally adorable. She didn’t do a trick, she didn’t have on a fancy outfit, she was just there. And it was exactly what we needed.
Petula and Kayla are just two of the dozens of dogs that visit patients at our hospital, there are Bernese Mountain Dogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels to name a few. However, worldwide, thousands of pets provide comfort and stress relief to all sorts of people. Therapy pets visit first responders after catastrophic events or visit nursing homes and rehab centers, perhaps taking an Alzheimer's patient back to the memories of a pet they had as a child. They come in all shapes and sizes, from cats to ponies, even dolphins.
Not just any pet can provide Animal-assisted Therapy (AAT) though (don’t confuse therapy animals with service animals--those animals aid an individual). Firstly, there are behavioral concerns as the animal must be stable enough to tolerate elevators, confused or disoriented patients, wheelchairs, IV poles, and so much more. Secondly, the pet must be in good health, as certified by a vet, as well as thoroughly groomed to remove the risk of disease transmission. In most cases, therapy animals also have certification or membership with an organization like Therapy Dogs International, so that they can be partnered with a group to visit.
While some studies say that the benefit of AAT is weak or immeasurable, there are studies that find AAT to significantly increase the quality of life in dementia patients. While the fix may be little more than a short-lived distraction for some individuals or families, I can attest that the benefits to our family were nothing short of a miracle.