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[Stress Home Page][Holisticonline Home][Pet Therapy on Holisticonline.com]

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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 nightmare.

“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 mother’s 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 driver’s 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 wags!" george.JPG (19115 bytes)

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

ruth2.JPG (15026 bytes)Ruth 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. booboobear.JPG (15767 bytes)

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 patient’s 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.

ruth-v2.JPG (16902 bytes)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.

People Perks

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 ease."

“Dogs 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

horse1.JPG (20656 bytes)Some 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 ride.

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.

bill2.JPG (16477 bytes)"My 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 son’s 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 BJ’s Journal, Fall 1999, Volume 2, No.4. Published by BJ’s Wholesale Club, Natick, Massachusetts 01760. Holisticonline.com thanks BJ’s 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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