By Sally Abrahms
Fifteen year old Nick Rosenthal of Brookline,
Massachusetts, walked into his mother's room one morning and announced he'd had a
I dreamt that I was allergic to Isabella (their
10-month old springer spaniel), and I didn't know which one of us you were going to give
away." His mothers response? Of course, the dog will stay!
All kidding aside, there's something between animals and
owners that can be magical. While children may grow into ornery adolescents, pets don't
have mood swings or meltdowns, and they never talk back. They're loyal and lovable; and
even if we're irritable, they adore us unconditionally. In a competitive and critical
world where we're always trying to change people, and they're trying to change us, pets
let us feel that we're great just the way we are. That also bring out our nurturing
instincts, and make us feel needed, worthwhile, and special. Besides, we're the boss!
But it goes beyond ego. Just ask George Salpietro of
Colchester, Connecticut. Six years ago, he lost his sight from a rare eye disease. 'Think
of this,' he says. 'You're 40 years old and you don't even wear glasses. All of a sudden,
you notice ' you have visual problems and within two weeks you are legally
blind. I had to give up my drivers license and my job as an automotive manager, and
thought I was going to live a dead-end life and never earn a living." Six months
later, he went blind. Salpietro, who had never owned a dog, received two-year- old Karl, a
German shepherd bred to serve. "I like to tell people," says Salpietro, 'that on
January 2, 1995, my opportunity to be equal to others came with four legs and a tail that
Explains Salpietro, 'After you lose your sight, the first
feeling you have is an incredible lack of independence. Since coming, into my life, Karl
has added that element of re-found independence. You have to understand what he means to
me. Karl makes me feel as though I can conquer anything and make the impossible be
possible. Now I live a normal life just like anybody else.'
Karl had been with a foster family until he was 14 months
old and was trained by professionals. Salpietro spent three weeks with a trainer learning
how to handle Karl. Most, people who have pets become close to them, but imagine a pet
with you 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, whom you use not only to assist you, but also
for life and death decisions, such as making sure you don't get killed when you cross the
street,' he explains. At the beginning of his relationship with Karl, trust wasn't
automatic for Salpietro. 'I'd question why he would stop when I would put my foot down and
there would be nothing there. But then I'd find out there was a branch overhead that I
couldn't see. When I was training, Karl would sometimes refuse to do something I told him
to do," says Salpietro. 'I learned that he disobeyed because my request wasn't safe.
When the bond and closeness started to happen, when Karl became my eyes, my best friend,
it was like nothing else in the world.'
Today, Salpietro is senior vice president of Fidelco, a
Bloomfield, Connecticut- based guide dog foundation that trains German shepherds. He has
logged 400,000 miles on airplanes with Karl (who sits with his master in the bulkhead) and
delivers motivational speeches around the country about coping with adversity.
Salpietro believes it's not really the animal that changes
the person, 'but something happens with your attitude. It changes and 'so you change. In
my case, the dog helped launch it.'
Karl has affected Salpietro so profoundly that he muses on
the following scenario: If someone said, 'You can get your sight back, but you'd
lose your dog,' I don't know what I'd do. Karl is almost a part of me.
The powerful connection between people and pets has been
examined by physicians and scientists, and there are college programs that offer courses
in animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities, which are more recreational.
Some hospitals have formal programs that use dogs, cats, and rabbits to work with and/or
visit depressed and scared patients. Animals are also increasingly brought in to comfort
lonely seniors, emotionally and physically abused and autistic children, crack babies, and
even the survivors of such tragedies as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. The majority of
programs use dogs, and there are many that certify cats. Both types are chosen for their
temperament and for their ability to be good companions and interact well with people.
Recipients may hold, stroke, groom, or play with the animal, and often talk about the pets
they have or had at home.
They've Got Heart
Researchers have documented the physiological effect pets
can have on humans with animal- assisted therapy. In one study conducted by Drs. Alan Beck
and Aaron Katcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine,
subjects had their blood pressure taken when they spoke to a researcher. Then a dog was
introduced into the room. The subjects' blood pressure dropped when they petted or spoke
to the animal as they chatted with the researcher. In yet another Katcher study of 92 men,
pets were found to better the men's chances of survival. The men were tracked during the
first year after a heart attack. One-third less people who owned pets died (six percent)
than those who didn't (28 percent). Erika Friedmann at Brooklyn College had similar
results with her work. She also found higher survival rates for pet owners than those who
didn't have pets a year after their heart attacks.
Yet another study in 1992 of 8,000 Australians reported
that pet owners were less likely to get heart disease than their pet-less counterparts.
Even though the owners in the study ate more meat and fast-food than non-pet owners, they
had lower blood pressure, plasma cholesterol, and triglycerides, and got more exercise.
The physical and emotional aspects are clearly intertwined.
A study conducted in 1990 of 1,000 Medicare patients discovered that dog owners visited
their doctors 16 percent less often than those who didn't own dogs. A study undertaken in
England a year later confirmed this. It showed that over a 10- month period, dog owners
had fewer small health problems and took more and longer walks than dogless owners.
Why would pets produce these results? The theory is that
the animals reduce stress levels and loneliness and, bring people out of themselves.
People can become more social when they are in the presence of animals. A researcher
reviewed 25 studies that examined the effects pets had on nursing home patients and
discovered they were more alert and smiled more when the animals were there; patients who
were physically aggressive calmed down and allowed people to be near them.
Dogs for the Dogged
Tuccio doesn't need studies to know that pet therapy works. For several years, the
secretary at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut, would bring her two greyhounds to
nursing homes. "It was incredible! I saw joy! The nursing home patients' faces just
lit up when they saw the dogs. The day can be very long and lonely in a nursing home. Some
people don't get visitors and it's the same routine. My dogs were not medication or a
nurse or doctor coming in to do another procedure. I've seen the patients lay their heads
on top of the dogs and put their arms around them and hold, them. It's a killer!"
Tuccio thought, 'How sad, I work in a hospital and I can't
share this with my own patients.' Three years ago, she approached administrators, who
agreed to try pet therapy after clearing it with the state's department of health. In the
beginning, Tuccio said the doctors were a little skeptical, but no longer.
Griffin Hospital uses only certified dogs, who meet with
their owners every Sunday morning in the hospital lobby. Sometimes, there are as many as
12 dogs, of all breeds and sizes ranging from a white German shepherd to Tuccio's
greyhounds to a golden retriever, a Welsh Corgi, a West Highland terrier, and a
Rottweiler. Some patients prefer smaller dogs, while others like the big breeds.
Here's how it works: The volunteers knock on the
patients door to see if he or she is interested (95 percent are). If they're given
the nod, the owner brings his dog to the patient's bed or wheelchair and the interaction
begins. Patients often talk about the pet at home they miss or how appreciative they are
for the visit. One nurse told Tuccio she had a 27-year-old patient who hadn't smiled once
all week until she saw the dogs.
Tuccio cherishes a picture she has of a patient holding her dog's
face in his hands. 'I've seen tears of joy,' she recounts. "Dogs don't see what
people see. They don't see a broken arm or a missing leg or a scar, which may make a
patient embarrassed. Dogs make no judgments. They don't want anything from you and they
don't have to say the right thing. They don't expect anything except perhaps a pat. They
just want to give love.'
The observation that pets are good for people is anything
but new. In the 1790s, the Quakers at a retreat for the mentally ill in England had
patients commune with farm animals, which they felt would be more helpful than the harsh
treatment often used on those with psychiatric problems. What's new is the reception pet
therapy is receiving. Owners also benefit from the therapy. "It's a thrill to watch
the dogs bring so much happiness and know that if I weren't there, they wouldn't be
getting this pleasure, explains Tuccio.
In prison, there are few pleasures, but one is raising
seeing-eye dogs and animals that have been rescued from the humane society. In 18 Ohio
penitentiaries, model patients in minimum and medium security keep the dogs with them
until the animals are ready to be placed. The screening process for prisoners is rigorous.
"Their whole personality changes,' says Donald Coble, administrative assistant in the
Bureau of Community Service for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
"It's a privilege to have a dog. It says that the inmate is dependable, so it
improves their self-esteem. It also gives them a chance to not have to be so macho and
breaks down that image a lot of guys feel they have to be. Here, they can show their more
compassionate side.' Coble said the Ohio penitentiaries that have dogs are finding fewer
disciplinary problems with their inmates than pet-less prisons.
"It helps pass the time quicker and gives them
something to look forward to," maintains Coble. It's also good therapy. The
prisoners benefit from having the responsibility of taking care of something. The dogs
lessen the tension, too. There's something about an animal that makes people feel at
don't see what people see. They don't see a broken arm or a missing leg or a scar .. They
just want to give love."
The Purrfect Pets
It's not only dogs that can do the trick. A 1984 study said
that watching tropical fish in an aquarium at a dentist's office works as well as hypnosis
for patients nervous about undergoing surgery. Another investigation done at the
University of Minnesota with gerbils, birds, and fish found that jittery children calmed
down when the animals were placed in doctors waiting rooms.
Stephen Daniel, a professor of psychology at Mercy-College
in Dobbs Ferry, New York, has supervised students who were learning pet therapy and
brought dogs, cats, snakes, lizards, and hedgehogs to emotionally disturbed children.
Daniel recalls a nine-year-old autistic girl who came out of her shell and touched a
hedgehog's spiny exterior. He thinks animal sessions help structure the day for youngsters
with unrestrained energy. Daniel also works with geriatric patients and finds the pet
appeal may be that they don't have a lot of energy and aren't required to make
conversation with them.
Daniel believes the cat allure comes because they put us in
our place a little. They accept you on their terms." But some of the attraction
between man and beast may also be "something primal and evolutionary," Daniel
maintains. "We were connected to animals a long time ago. When we were hunting, they
would help us. They give us a bit of nature in our homes. And besides," he adds,
it's nice to have something that just loves you!"
The Confidence to Do It All
people can't seem to conquer serious challenges. And some, like Lisa Heberger, make
lemonade from lemons. Lisa may have grown up blind, but that didn't deter her from
enjoying gymnastics or competitive horseback riding or owning her own stable, graduating
college, or becoming a mother.
Referring to gymnastics, she says, "Sure, I would get
caught up in my routine and forget to count my rolls and end up rolling into a wall, but I
would just get up and tell myself to pay more attention to what I was doing. I learned to
keep trying and I had a lot of fun," she said. Horses also gave Lisa lots of
pleasure. She began by grooming them and then entered competitions and taught others to
Her guide dog Zion not only takes teasing graciously from
Lisa's active toddler son but has given her the self-assurance to seek full-time work.
"With Zion, I'll be able to go, into my interviews knowing that I got myself there
and that I can do anything the job requires,' she explains. "He gives me the
confidence I need and I think people with whom I'll be interviewing will be more confident
of my abilities when I can walk confidently into their office without anyone's help."
A Real Buddy
Deborah Dillon is convinced her brother Bill's pug Buddy -
named aptly enough - is the reason he is doing so well. Two years ago, he bought Buddy,
but a few months after the dog's arrival, Dillon's brother, who has AIDS, became extremely
ill. Bill decided he could no longer take care of Buddy and tearfully gave him away.
brother did not get out of bed for two weeks. He would not answer the phone, and he wasn't
eating. He gave up," recalls Dillon. Distraught by her sons reaction, his
mother called the new owner and asked for Buddy back. The woman consented. 'You'd have
thought he had gone to Lourdes (France) to get cured by the holy water,' said Dillon. 'If
he had not gotten the dog back, who knows what would have happened.' Bill got out of bed
and began to gain back his strength. Today, he and Buddy walk two to three miles a day and
his health has improved greatly.
Buddy gives him something to nurture and care for
when he's usually on the receiving end," muses Dillon. "It gives him a reason to
get up in the morning and a way to meet people. It's important for my brother to take care
of himself, to take his medication, and eat properly, and he does now. Because of Buddy, I
worry about my brother a lot less."
For good reason. The pug, while not formally trained to
help his master, can be credited with alerting neighbors to a medical emergency. One day,
Buddy began barking and wouldn't stop. A neighbor in his apartment building knew that was
out of character for the dog and came to investigate. Buddy was barking because his owner
was violently sick and needed to go to the hospital.
They have an incredible attachment, notes
Dillon, and everyone in the family respects it, realizes it's very special, and does
what they can to keep it going. We all make arrangements for the dog to be included when
there is something to do with my brother." When Bill visits, Dillon makes sure to
have a special toy for Buddy. His mother has installed a run in her backyard so the pug
can play freely, and safely when her son visits. He's become a member of the
extended family, says Dillon. "I never believed in the power of pets with people
until I saw it for myself.
Published with permission from
BJs Journal, Fall 1999, Volume 2, No.4. Published by BJs Wholesale Club,
Natick, Massachusetts 01760. Holisticonline.com thanks BJs Wholesale Club for the
assistance rendered in getting permission from all participants to make this gem available
to our visitors. Thank you.
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