For many years now, researchers have agreed that when a human strokes a loved dog, their blood pressure lowers and heart rate lessens. Having animals, even a snake, promotes the so named ‘oxytocin effect’, the feel good chemical linked with bonding and love. When humans produce oxytocin, it helps with interactions, lowers stress and we better respond to treatment. The latest research even suggests that a hormone that is released is similar to when a mother breast feeds her infant!
While we may be used to seeing Guide Dogs for the visually impaired, I have noticed recently in my local shopping centre that dogs are accompanying children with disabilities, such as the wheel chair bound, or those with autism. In Australia you will also see dogs in hospitals and aged care facilities.
Animals have always been part of our children, and now grandchildren’s lives. Our family has had 12 dogs over the last forty years. Our small mixed breed Molly was a regular visitor in a local nursing home for the elderly. She brought a smile to the faces of everyone, and would happily sit for ages while she was patted, stroked under her chin and whispered to that she was a good dog! Our present dog, a tiny whippet called Milly Mae, is a favourite with all of our grandchildren.
When Skyping with our two oldest grandchildren (Sam, 5 and Tali, 2) they always want to see Milly, even though they live in Cambodia and have not actually physically been in her presence! Grace, our 17 month grand-daughter is discovering how to be gentle and nurturing through her interactions. She is learning if she is rough, it hurts, and Milly is ‘sad’. Molly and Milly Mae are not alone in their roles! Dogs have been trained to respond to seizures by lying next to their owner to prevent injury, or to hit an emergency button. Others have been trained to detect cancer through smelling human urine of breathe. More and more dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs are being used in animal-assisted therapy. Animal-assisted therapy means that they are used to help people who are sick, elderly, disabled, have depression or anxiety.
Studies show that preschoolers are better able to follow instructions during assigned tasks if they were accompanied by a trained dog, people with dementia calm down quicker if in the presence of a dog, and if a person feels needed by a vulnerable animal, it means better health. The Western Australian Journal of Nursing Research has found that Alzheimer’s patients are more likely to have increased eating habits if in the presence of a fish tank. A ten year study by the University of Minnesota found that people with a cat in their house were 40% less likely to have a cardiovascular incident and 30% less likely to have a stroke.
In one of the latest studies, researchers at the Monash Injury Research Institute (Victoria, Australia) recently completed a two year pilot study that used small animals to teach children empathy. These children came from disadvantaged backgrounds and had experienced trauma through their environments. The children presented with mistrust of adults, anxiety, aggression and sadness. They had not responded to the traditional methods of counselling. Researcher Dr. Neerosh Mudaly stated, “They learn empathy and control, and often take these lessons back into their families, where perhaps they bullied their more vulnerable siblings.” Repeated sessions where the children learn to relate gently and consistently to a vulnerable animal, in a safe environment, he suggests, is having dramatic effects in helping children to heal from abuse and violence (Herald Sun, March 30th 2014).
Our partner in Thailand, Christian Care Foundation for Children with Disabilities (www.ccdthailand.org) has several dogs on their premises. They wander through the bedrooms, classrooms and offices, always with a waging tail, as the many children call their name, cuddle and pat them. I have observed over the years how the children love them, and how much they are part of life.
Do you have a dog or other small animal in your facility? How does he or she help the children? I look forward to your thoughts and comments.