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Creature Comforts

Dogs Aren’t Only Your Best Friend, They’re Also Good For Your Health

By Aleza Freeman

When a normally quiet patient at Nathan Adelson Hospice began yelling in his room, staff came running from every direction to see what was wrong.

It turns out the patient, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, was screaming out with joy. He had just been paid a visit by one of the hospice’s therapy dogs. In his less than lucid state, he thought it was his own beloved dog, whom he’d painstakingly given up before entering hospice.

“Of course we didn’t tell him any differently,” says Lisa Browder, who runs the hospice’s Bonnie Schreck Memorial Complementary Therapies Program. “It really brightened his spirits.”

With a propensity for unconditional love and loyalty, soft fur for petting and plenty of wet kisses to give, it’s really no surprise that dogs are good medicine for humans. In fact, a recent study published by BMC Health in June confirms that dog ownership potentially leads to better physical health. Those with dogs spent more time walking at a moderate intensity than those without.

Recent studies on mental health also tout the benefits of dogs. Patients visited by dogs have lower blood pressure rates, lower respiratory rates, and are able to sleep better. These are big benefits, in general, but particularly in a hospice environment.

“Even with all the other symptoms they may have, anxiety really kind of takes the cake for a lot of the patients,” says Browder. “Anxiety can exacerbate so many things … lead to all sorts of negative symptoms. If all it takes is for this cute little puppy to come in so they can sleep better, then already were on top of the issues.”

The phenomenon of doggy doctoring isn’t limited to the hospice environment. Hospitals, schools, senior centers, VAs, businesses, even funeral homes, are all beginning to embrace the mental and physical health benefits of our furry friends.

During the “BookTime Buddies” program at the Nevada Blind Children’s Foundation, for instance, a therapy dog named Buddy serves as a cute and captive listener who won’t criticize or judge how well the kids read. With their anxieties eased, the children are able to relax, read, and potentially improve their literacy.

“It’s a positive interaction all around for our kids,” said Buddy’s owner Emily Smith, executive director at the NBCF. “People seem to be naturally drawn to him. He seems to just know what people need or want at that moment.”

Jeff Stilson, director of operations at the Animal Foundation, explains that humans who own a pet tend to see an improvement in their wellbeing which leads to an overall better quality of life.

“You always have a companion,” adds Stilson, “someone who is there for you.”

And it’s not just humans who experience the healing benefits.

Kelly McMahon, executive director of Hearts Alive Village, a Las Vegas-based animal rescue, food pantry, and pet store, owns a white Pit Bull rescue named PeeWee. Nowadays, PeeWee is confident and friendly, but she wasn’t always that way.

“The odds were stacked against her when I got her,” explains McMahon. “She’s deaf, she’s a Pit Bull. She was a rescue. She had severe separation anxiety. She was just a mess.”

McMahon credits her former service dog, Pele, for pulling the Pit Bull out of her shell.

“When I brought PeeWee home, she would literally sit under the table shaking,” says McMahon. “She would go to the bathroom all over herself. You couldn’t talk to her because she was deaf, and if you tried to reach out to her she would get scared.”

Pele had such a healing effect on PeeWee that she was eventually able to be trained and certified as a therapy dog. It wouldn’t have been possible without the help of her canine companion.

“I don’t know what Pele did,” admits McMahon. “He had some sort of doggy language. He would literally just lay by her. He would bring toys and just drop them around her, and he got her to play. He made her a dog.”

With all the benefits dogs provide to us, it doesn’t seem like an even trade for Sherry Greenblatt, communications director for Hearts Alive Village.

“I think we get so much more from them,” she admits.

Greenblatt previously worked as a day treatment counselor at a health facility, where she led hour-long classes for patients suffering from severe mental illness. While many of the facility’s classes focused on the patients’ disease and symptoms, Greenblatt decided to try “fur therapy,” as she calls it.

“Nobody gets better by thinking about their problems,” explains Greenblatt, “so I started taking my young adult clients to Animal Foundation. We walked the animals, sometimes we danced with them.”

During the hour that her patients spent hands on with the animals, their symptoms completely vanished. “They weren’t having delusions and their behavior improved,” she says.

“It was great for the animals too,” adds Greenblatt, explaining that dogs and cats are “more adoptable” when they experience human interaction on a regular basis.

Greenblatt credits her own dog, a rescued beagle-lab mix named Akasha, with helping to pull her out of a serious depression nine years ago.

“I was at a super low point,” she says. “I was going through a divorce, moved to Las Vegas, filed bankruptcy and didn’t have a job. I didn’t know anyone out here except for my parents.”

Akasha was the one who “kept me sane through all of this,” she says.

“Animals do amazing things for us,” insists Greenblatt. “We have to speak up for them because they can’t do it for themselves.”

With summer bringing an increase in admissions at local animal shelters, (particularly because of the noise from fireworks over the 4th of July), Stilson says now is a great time to think about adoption. The Animal Foundation has an 80 percent live release rate, but there are still always plenty of dogs (as well as cats and other animals) at Lied Animal Shelter and other area shelters looking for a home.

In return, your adopted pet will provide you with love and so much more.

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