IN early October, as the citizens of Las Vegas digested the aftermath of their country’s largest mass shooting, a story about nine rescue dogs made its way through the carnage. The K-9 Comfort Dog Ministries have developed something of a celebrity status in recent years turning up to offer succour to survivors of tragedies such as the Sandy Hook shooting, the Pulse nightclub massacre and Hurricane Harvey. While some might scoff at the idea of drafting dogs in to support victims of a mass shooting, comfort or therapy dogs are considered by those working in the field the best therapists around.
“The whole atmosphere in a room changes when a volunteer walks in with a dog,” says Brenda D Rickard, CEO of Irish Therapy Dogs. “And it’s the dog that does it. If you think about it, dogs are probably the best therapists in the world because people feel they can be themselves. A dog doesn’t judge you and just rubbing a dog or looking at one relaxes people. Problems don’t go away but people forget them for a while.”
Irish Therapy Dogs was founded in 2008 and today, over 250 teams comprising a handler and their dog make weekly visits to day-care centres, hospices, hospitals, long-stay nursing and retirement homes across the country. According to Brenda, the positive impact of their visits has seen an increase in demand.
“Every day we get applications from right across the country,” she says. “We so badly want to fill them because there is the need there. And it just shows you that it is known in care centres and through word of mouth how effective having dogs on site is.”
People who own or work with dogs have known for years about the power of canine companionship but now it seems science is catching up.
A recent study conducted at Azabu University in Japan investigated the relationship between dogs and their owners to see if any chemical reactions took place when dogs and owners interacted. Researchers observed the interaction for 30 minutes and gauged the amount of time the pair spent looking into each other’s eyes.
Urine tests before and after the session revealed that oxytocin levels spiked in people whose dogs stared at them the most. And it was not just humans that benefited, their dogs experienced a similar effect.
Historically, oxytocin in humans is most prevalent just before and after childbirth and is known as the bonding chemical. That the release of the chemical is found when a dog and owner interact explains much about the connection between us.
In the US, a pilot study conducted by The Centre for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, suggests that healthcare professionals who spend five minutes with a therapy dog experience the same levels of stress reduction as those who spend 20 minutes resting quietly.
Studies have also proved that canine companionship brings physical health benefits. Research at The University of Missouri-Columbia was particularly revealing. It involved 50 dog owners and 50 non-dog owners who sat in a quiet room for 15 to 39 minutes with their own dog, a friendly but strange dog, and a robotic dog. The inclusion of the robotic dog was to see if electronic dogs could help elderly people incapable of looking after real ones.
Each session involved calm stroking or petting. Researchers checked blood samples of the humans and dogs at the beginning of each session and monitored their blood pressure every five minutes. They found that a dog’s blood pressure dropped as soon as they were petted. A human’s blood pressure dropped by about 10% 15 to 30 minutes after they began petting the animal.
The study also found that serotonin levels increased when owners interacted with their own dog, but, curiously, not with the unfamiliar dog. In the case of the robot serotonin actually decreased. One explanation for these therapeutic effects is that a dog fulfils the most basic human need to touch. Stroking, holding and fussing a dog can calm and soothe the most stressed of us. The companionship of a dog can offer comfort and ease our sense of isolation and loneliness.
Some years ago Karen Jones and her family were joined by a sixth member. Yolo, a golden retriever, came to live with the Joneses and help out with their four-year-old daughter Skye.
“Before Yolo came along, Skye would never speak with anyone,” says Karen.
“In fact, she never spoke a word until she was three. She was afraid of going anywhere that wasn’t familiar or that had loud noises or lights. If we were out shopping and somebody spoke to her, or made eye contact with her, she would fall apart. And, like most children with autism, she would bolt the instant you let go of her hand.”
But when Yolo came along that all changed. Skye was now physically strapped to Yolo and because of his training, he knew when to move and when not to move. What was more extraordinary was the fact that Skye didn’t want to move. Apart from the sense of security that Yolo brings, Karen has seen her daughter blossom with a new confidence that she hopes others can experience.
“Skye doesn’t have a problem with strangers these days, or with eye contact,” says Karen. “Her communication has improved beyond anything we could have imagined. And I know it’s all down to Yolo and the Irish Guide Dogs who made it happen. Day by day, he’s unlocking the world for her. And on top of all that, he’s brought us all together as a family.”