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Overcoming Stress by Volunteering With Your Dog

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Case Vignette:

“Several years ago a neighbor of mine faced a serious family crisis when his wife faced double lung transplant surgery. What made the situation even worse than one might expect is that it took a long time before a candidate could be found to donate two lungs. Of course, such a “candidate” is a person who has died as a result of an accidental death. How did this husband cope while everyone waited for his wife to receive the double transplant or die while waiting, which was a real possibility? He decided to do volunteer work at the local hospital.

The nature of his volunteering was to certify his golden retriever to work as a therapy dog with hospital patients. In this case, the work involved visiting hospitalized patients with his belove dog. He and the dog were trained by Therapy Dogs International so that they could get approval to enter the hospital. The strategy was very successful in helping get his mind off the terrible crisis he faced and allowed him to get the joy from giving to others, something which positive psychology emphasizes is an emotionally healthy thing to do. Both patients and hospital staff derived joy from his dog’s visits which occurred two or three days a week.”

As it turned out his wife was able to get the double transplant and, against all odds, is living a healthy life. Her husband and his dog continue to do volunteer work at the hospital.”

One of the most rewarding things that a dog owner can do is volunteer with his pet to visit patients in hospitals and nursing. Over and again, it’s been shown that there is a powerful tie between people and animals. For example, it’s been shown that blood pressure decreases when a pet is around. In hospitals and nursing homes patients report having a brighter mood when visited by a therapy dog. Even dementia patients have been observed improved and less agitation when visited by one of these dogs.

It’s important to point out that these animals are pets and are not service animals trained to assist the handicapped. It is also important to state that, while my preference is dogs, other types of pets can serve as service animals. Nor do the dogs have to be pure bred breeds.

Several four-legged volunteers with the People-Animal Connection (PAC) program at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and their human counterparts starred in an episode of the PBS television show, “Shelter Me: Let’s Go Home,” that premiered in April. The docu-series celebrates shelter pets with positive and uplifting stories about people’s lives being improved when they adopt a shelter pet. The show followed a handful of human/dog teams with UCLA’s animal-assisted therapy PAC program as they volunteered at the hospital. All of the dogs featured were adopted from shelters and now help people by bringing comfort to patients and their families, as well as joy to the doctors and nurses.

The benefits of volunteering with a pet are manifold: People can adopt rescue animals who would otherwise be euthanized. This happens to millions of animals who could otherwise live useful lives. The animals who are adopted by loving families can be trained to be volunteer service animals. This then gives the owners, patients and hospital or nursing home staffs to enjoy the benefits from these animals. Doing this is also a way to relieve stress and depression as a result of the benefits of doing something for others.

With regard to dogs, Therapy Dogs International states that for a dog to qualify as a therapy dog it must have these characteristics:

1. It must have a wonderful temperament,
2. Feel comfortable visiting with people,
3. Love children as some of the visits are with hospitalized children,
4. Get along with other dogs.

These pets do not wear a vest that you see on serviced dogs. Some of them may wear a bandana around the neck in order to identify it and people are not only allowed to pet them but are encouraged to do so. If it’s a TDI dog they will wear a tag.

Not all dogs need to be trained by TDI because there are other organizations that do so and a Google search will identify where they are. In addition, some hospitals and nursery homes provide training for the pets and their owners.

If you have a pet this is something you could do. It’s a winning situation for all involved.

Your comments and questions are encouraged.


Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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