By NICK BARNETT
Photo: Dare the Shetland sheepdog is a therapy dog in Colorado.
It seems that doctors and therapists are quickly catching up with something that dog owners have felt for a long time: dogs are good for your health.
Universities, schools, hospitals, schools and military forces are using dogs as part of their therapy. Dogs just make things better.
Students at Tufts University in the United States can take a break from head-spinning study sessions to go and do something to clear their head and make them smile: pet or hang out with a dog.
A student adviser started the programme after seeing the success at his own alma mater, New York University, of a “stress day” that allowed students to pet a puppy. At Tufts, he worked with a therapy dog group, Dog Bones, to bring in six to eight dogs at a time to be with groups of students who might pet and play with the dogs, or just sit on the group’s periphery and chat in a relaxed, homelike atmosphere. The students have a calming reason to take a half hour off exam preparations that can lock them on one task (remember how tough that is?).
Yale Law School does something similar. There, students can buy a bit of time with border terrier-cross Monty – to make them feel less stressed and more at home. Monty is not a dog-for-rent – he belongs to a librarian at the school who had the idea of sharing her amiable dog with others.
The US Marines recognise how therapeutic dogs are, too. A Marine tells of how he came back from duty in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder that put him on constant high alert and made him irritable and angry. But now he finds that the company of Brian, a Labrador retriever, helps him out by taking away that hyper-vigilance and calming him. The dog is both companion and protector.
Brian was trained by Puppies Behind Bars, a programme in which prison inmates train dogs for these therapeutic and service jobs. The inmates often rise to this new responsibility and discover the sense of achievement that comes from bonding with and training a dog.
I’m not surprised by these uses of dogs, and it wouldn’t surprise me if dogs become more common in all kinds of places where people get stressed: courtroom, hospital and doctors’ waiting rooms, even a lot of workplaces. Imagine how it might be, if instead of biting your annoying colleague’s head off, you can go to a nearby room and watch puppies for a few minutes. If my workplace had an inhouse dog, I’d certainly visit it each workday. Please, Fairfax?
My own dogs are a big de-stressor for me. I’m afflicted with a lump of brain matter between my ears that won’t stop whirring its cogs and gears and has no off-switch, and I find it incredibly hard to shift my thinking away from work. But the one time my brain throws itself into neutral is when I’m out with my dogs, walking them or watching them chase around a park. All the world’s complexity evaporates, memory and speculation stop.
The other way my dogs de-stress me is through being a responsibility. They create a routine that has to be kept to of feeding, walking, health checks, washing, grooming and so on. Routine is calming.
So, three cheers for dogs-as-therapy. And a necessary mention of cats-as-therapy too – the intensity of the dose may be slightly different, but the phenomenon is much the same.
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