Animals’ presence in our lives can be taken for granted. Many of us have pets, and we get used to having them around, we get used to the routine, and feel the obligation of caring for them. Some animals, however, do more of a job.
They do more than just keep us company on walks or sit on our laps while we watch TV. My beagle, Giuseppe, was just certified as a therapy dog by the Good Dog Foundation. He has now been to the Warner Library, where a boy read him a book, and he will be returning there again. He also met with some residents of an assisted living facility, where he interacted with the elderly who may have had pets earlier in their lives, may feel lonely, or would simply enjoy a visit with a furry friend. We are all familiar with dogs that help the blind, and we know of police dogs or dogs that help with search and rescue. More recently, dogs have been trained to help others with medical and emotional needs, whether it is my dog “Zep” bringing some comfort and cheer to a lonely octogenarian, or a dog that is trained to be a service dog to one particular person, these dogs are more than just pets.
How do animals, dogs in particular, help people? Some ways are obvious, some not so—they can help someone with mobility problems or visual impairment get around more independently because they can guide the person, or perhaps more impressively – put groceries in a cart, pick up something that’s been dropped, help an individual get dressed, or help a person to balance who might otherwise have problems walking. For a child with autism, the service dog may help him learn to communicate, learn to trust, and can hold back a child who tends to take off and run into dangerous situations such as crowds and streets. For a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, the dog can be trained to attune to changes in breathing or tension in the body and help calm the person down before a full-blown panic attack occurs. Service dogs have been trained to alert to seizures, getting a parent or caretaker, or even calling 911 at the first sign of trouble. Other animals, such as horses, are used as well, to bridge emotional gaps and help individuals with injuries or illnesses like cerebral palsy to learn better balance and build muscle strength. The benefits of something as simple as petting a cat or watching a fish tank have been documented for years.
A friend of mine just got me involved with Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities, a group that trains puppies to become service dogs for individuals with the above-mentioned medical conditions, so that they can live more independently. ECAD is also involved in working with veterans (and Sen. Al Franken introduced a bill in Washington that will enlarge the scope of service dogs for veterans, helping more people benefit from these amazing animals). I have now taken the training course to be a weekend babysitter, and I look forward to helping socialize many dogs so they can eventually help people who need this service.
I spoke with Phil Bauer, the kennel manager and an instructor at the Dobbs Ferry facility where the ECAD dogs are raised and trained, with the help of boys who live at Children’s Village, a residential treatment center for boys with emotional/behavioral issues. For many of these boys, who may have suffered traumas such as abuse and loss, it becomes hard to trust another person again or to have confidence in themselves. Working with the dogs helps them to begin to form bonds with another living creature. They learn the importance of discipline, love, and consistency, as the dogs will only learn in the presence of all three. Mr. Bauer refers to it as “reprogramming the boys,” in that they are brought back to the here and now and can relearn to trust. It is also necessary for them to leave their problems at the door, as their focus when doing their job is the puppy and his progress.
Mr. Bauer, a veteran, is also a recipient of a service dog. Prior to obtaining his current job he was given Reese, a spunky golden retriever, to help him live a more independent life. Mr. Bauer suffered an injury in Iraq where he lost one leg from the knee down. Aside from the physical and mobility issues he has now, he also has post-traumatic stress disorder, which can cause him to become overcharged emotionally, and as he describes it, he gets angry, frustrated, and exhibits extreme focus on the stressor. Reese, in response to changes he senses in Mr. Bauer, gets “goofy,” which helps divert his attention to the dog and away from his own stress. In addition, Mr. Bauer has some trouble in crowds since his injury, but Reese “blocks and covers,” to use Mr. Bauer’s military metaphor, forming a buffer from the crowd so that he feels he has more space. Mr. Bauer can be self-conscious about his injury, and feels that sometimes people don’t know how to approach him or what is OK to ask. With Reese, he finds that people focus on the dog, the ice is broken, and it may take 20 minutes before they notice his prosthetic leg. By then, a conversation is flowing and everyone is more relaxed. And of course, Reese is a big help as far as getting things for Mr. Bauer if he is struggling physically. He can carry something over to him, pick something up off the floor, open and hold doors, and otherwise be an extra “paw” for him.
Anyone who has a well-behaved dog who enjoys attention can look into having the dog certified as a “Good Dog” who can go out and do everything from bringing cheer to a hospital to helping a struggling reader build confidence, because as one child said, “The dog doesn’t yell at me when I make a mistake.” Anyone with time to give can volunteer for Guiding Eyes or ECAD, helping with raising puppies, assisting at fundraisers, or simply spreading the word. Angels walk among us. On four paws. ©
Barbara Kapetanakes, PsyD., practices child, adult, and
family psychotherapy in