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Animals as Healers



It was risky explaining to an editor a few months back why I wouldn't make the deadline for submitting an article. For weeks my house had served as hospice for a dying friend, and in the final two days I turned off the phone, shut down the computer, and sat or slept near my friend until he passed. Reasonable explanation - except that the friend was a cat. (Thank you, Dear Editor, for granting that extension without judgment.)

I've since discovered support groups, Web sites, and even 24-hour hotlines to help people through the loss of a pet - companion animals are that important to many of us. It hasn't always been so. Our millennia-long relationship with the furred, feathered, finned, and otherwise differently constructed has been wildly diverse. To us they have been divine beings or devils, beautiful or abhorrent, food or friend or both. Classic extremes are the revered cats, fish, birds, and beetles of ancient Egyptians, compared to the animals (and many people) debased and tortured during the Inquisition.

Animals have always been useful to have around, providing food, clothing, tools, fuel, muscle-power, transportation, and models for the design of machinery and manmade materials. Now they are also experimental subjects and living factories that produce medicines, replacement hormones, tissues, and organs. But animals have impacted the human spirit as well. Indigenous people, for example, attribute both worldly and otherworldly powers and wisdom to animals. Totem animals are allies that make the human whole, as does identifying the animal clan to which a person belongs. Many people outside of indigenous traditions also view a respectful relationship to the animal kingdom as enriching, even essential, to the human psyche.

Kindred Spirits, by veterinarian Allen Schoen, recounts dozens of studies and stories of animals that helped heal the body or spirit of children, the elderly, and people who are ill, depressed, or impaired. The book's subtitle summarizes: The remarkable bond between humans and animals can change the way we live. In one study of nursing home residents, 75 percent of men and 67 percent of women said their dogs were their only friends. Some people describe a pet as their motivation for recovering from an illness or injury.

A pet in the household, or even a temporary visit from an animal, has been documented to lower blood pressure and anxiety; reduce the need for doctor visits and medicines; enhance cognition, movement, and quality of life among the elderly; improve impairments after injury, aid in socialization and rehabilitation of at-risk youth and of psychiatric patients; assist children who have learning disorders or differences; increase likelihood of survival during the year following a heart attack; and open communication with people who are grieving, abandoned, or abused.

Susan and Ron Rozman of Esopus adopted their dog Mootsie, a black lab/hound mix, as a young pup. Around the same time, Susan was diagnosed with cancer. Mootsie was a huge aid for Susan as she endured a first course of chemotherapy, then a stronger, more difficult one. Ron recalls how Mootsie "made Susan laugh every day, as lousy as she was feeling, by just being himself."

"Mootsie was a happy-go-lucky dog who was really a goofball," Susan says. "He could be such a pain in the ass one minute, and then was a really compassionate healer the next minute. He wanted to go in and out of the house all the time, but when I was feeling bad, he would hang by me all day. When I'd just come back from chemo, he would come over and want to smooch and snuggle. For the first two nights after chemo he would sleep by me."

Susan's second course of chemo cleared any sign of cancer, but two days after that news, Mootsie was hit by a car and died. The family concurs that Mootsie seems to have come into their lives to help Susan through that period. Now there's a new puppy, Biggie Smalls. "Half basset hound and half something else, a short guy with a big attitude," says Ron. Hopefully Biggie will be able to follow in Mootsie's pawprints, because Susan has a recurrence of cancer and more chemo to deal with.

Hospitals, nursing homes, psychiatric wards, schools, and other facilities for people in need of special care or training are opening their doors to animals. Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck has hosted animals at Thompson House (its on-site nursing home) for years, and has just begun to bring dogs into the hospital itself.

"We really strive for patient satisfaction, and we thought it would be a comfort to them," explains Laurie Nash, director of volunteer services. The dogs and their handlers both must be specially trained and certified for hospital work by a nationally recognized program like Therapy Dogs International. "Also, the dog's handler has to go through an orientation here, just like any hospital staff person."

"You can see how much it makes patients happy, and sometimes the tears just flow," says Trish Harrison, coordinator of Northern Dutchess' "pet therapy" program. "It really opens some doors. Even placing someone's hand on the dog can have a positive effect. There was an elderly lady who just sat there, looking straight ahead. We asked her if she would like to meet a pet therapy dog. Her face just lit up immediately. When the dog was put on her bed, she just opened up and began to tell us the most amazing stories about her life." The dogs also get to mingle with people in the waiting room, and with the staff, who find it a welcome stress-reliever.

Harrison would love to travel the country and develop similar programs at many hospitals. She has already done so at two others, including Benedictine Hospital in Kingston. Benedictine has its own trainer and dogs, thanks to collaboration with the Good Dog Foundation. Based in Manhattan, Good Dog has about 250 dog-handler teams trained to visit hospitals, HIV and cancer patients, nursing homes, psychiatric wards, hospices, shelters for abused women and children, and more. It also won national attention and special awards for its work with families of victims and rescue workers in the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster.

Rachel McPherson, founder and Executive Director of Good Dog, was a filmmaker researching animal-assisted therapy for a documentary when she "discovered that the work was more important than the film." She's in awe of the animals' abilities. "Somehow they can smell or taste what each person needs. They sense stress and a person's body language intuitively, and freely give unconditional love. And I did a lot of work at Ground Zero. What therapists or people of faith could not do to break through some of the pain, the dogs could. They worked as ice-breakers to the human, helping them to communicate their pain."
Another dog helper at Ground Zero was Daisy. She's not specially trained, but has the canine's instinctive compassion and a great personality. Her companion human, Birgit Darby, and Darby's mom, brought Daisy along when they volunteered at the tents where the Red Cross was working with families who had lost someone in the disaster. "People were coming in who had lost a wife or a husband," Darby remembers, "and one woman in particular had really been wailing and rocking, and no one could console her. Daisy was three months old then, and we brought her over, and the woman just sat there and hugged the puppy and pet her. It soothed her and really calmed her down."

Daisy was also a fantastic distraction for the kids at Ground Zero. Plus, she was a comfort for Darby's son during a divorce. "It can be really helpful to have someone who doesn't talk back or give advice," she says. "They sit and listen and let you feel, and validate your feelings by their silence. That's something that's nice for my son, and any child when they feel isolated or down."

Children are said to be especially open to animals. It's no coincidence that young people's literature and videos are filled with nonhumans - some depicted realistically, others anthropomorphized to teach human lessons, yet others made unfairly into horrific villains (please experience the Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH as a book instead of the movie!). Most often, however, they are shown as staunch allies for children, and vice versa.

A friend attributes surviving her adolescent dark night of the soul to her cat. The young woman was sequestered in the bathroom, poised to take her life, when the cat appeared like a miracle (the door was locked). She made a pact with the cat to live out the night. Things got better and that woman is now a well-settled professional, happily cohabitating with several pets (and a husband).

"Autistic children talk through dogs, and dogs also are great teachers," says Johnny McGuire, who has been bringing animals and people together for 35 years. "My dogs come in, they aren't on a leash, the parrot is on my shoulder, the cat on the cart, and people get to choose which animal they want to interact with. Rabbits are fantastic. They'll sit on a lap for hours." In addition to the vast array of benefits he's observed among the elderly, infirm, and seriously injured, animals work wonders with developmentally delayed or challenged children.

"I'll put a dog in a chair, and it'll sit there while kids read to the dog. Kids who won't read for the teachers will read for the dog." McGuire says kids who haven't been able to learn in any other setting can succeed for the reward of interacting with an animal. It's that unconditional listening and support: no judgment, no punishment, just love. "The dogs are on loan from God and they are just doing their thing."

Animals that come through hospital wards or nursing homes can brighten someone's day, but there's a more specific role that animals can play called animal-assisted therapy (AAT). AAT is a prime therapeutic tool at Green Chimneys Farm and Wildlife Center in Brewster, Putnam County. Green Chimneys is considered the strongest and most diverse center in the country to offer programs for disabled and socially or behaviorally challenged children that are based around interactions with nature. Domestic animals, plants, and wildlife are there for general educational and recreational activities, but they're also key players in AAT.

"AAT is a goal-directed intervention designed for an individual as part of their therapy," explains Green Chimney's Deborah Bernstein. "Say a child is hyperactive. We might have them work with our arctic foxes, because the foxes need people to be calm. Children who normally might not sit still will wait forty-five minutes to get to pet and feed a fox. That's part of modeling a new behavior. Or, for a child who might be aggressive, we could pair them with a donkey. You have to be very gentle to interact with a donkey." Other animals on site include an alpaca, emus, birds of prey, and a variety of sheep, goats, pigs, and horses.

Domestic or wild, animals can touch people in profound ways. People who swim with dolphins often can't find sufficient words to describe it. Anna Sewell's Black Beauty was more than a children's story: she was dying while writing it, capturing in words the connections she discovered between her suffering and that of the work horses. Harold Brown, a fifth generation beef farmer, shed his "emotional and psychological disconnect to cows" when Sneakers the cow at Farm Sanctuary (a haven for animals in Watkins Glen, New York) came and rested his head against the man's chest. Brown has since become Campaign Coordinator for Farm Sanctuary's nationwide actions to improve conditions for farm animals.

Even the smallest sparrow descending into a sorry patch of grass can be a hopeful messenger that changes the flavor of a day, or perhaps a life, for the human who is open to notice it.


Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals
Can Change the Way We Live
by Allen Schoen (2001)

Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond
Between People and Dogs
by Caroline Knapp (1998)

The Healing Power of Pets
by Marty Becker (2002)

The Good Dog Foundation
Provides training and animals for assistance to humans in need.
GDF is also seeking dogs and their
companion people to volunteer.
(718) 788-2988.

Green Chimneys
Main campus in Brewster, NY, provides educational, recreational, vocational and mental health services through inter-actions with animals and nature; offers
a Certificate program in Animal Assisted Therapy.
(845) 279-2995; open to the public Saturdays and Sundays.

The Delta Society
Premier national organization on Animal Assisted Therapy and the human-animal health connection.
(425) 226-7357.

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