There is no doubt that petting animals lowers your blood pressure. A study found that even simply having a dog laying in the same room with you lowers your blood pressure. Animals have proven to be therapeutic: increasing functioning in autistic children, helping warriors heal from post-traumatic stress, and resolving anxiety in our elders.
When my son was 10-years-old he said to me, “I think Bowser’s bored at home and needs a job.” We were hiking in Skunk Canyon with his dog, Bowser, at the time. My mind turned to what type of job Bowser could have, considering the possibility of a police dog. But when I asked my son, “what kind of job do you think Bowser should have?” he replied, “the only thing he would be good for is a therapy dog.”
And thus began our training with the Boulder Community Hospital’s Canine Corps. My son was the youngest to ever enter the program, as was his dog. The director was so enamored with them both, that her only stipulation was that I needed to accompany them. We made weekly hospital visits together between 2004-2008.
What I discovered was that a visit by a therapy dog during a hospital stay usually gave people a smile, an opportunity to focus outside of their personal illness, and a genuine connection. It was uplifting to spirits. It was also a welcome break for the nurses, who, at their stations, would keep a box of dog biscuits in the drawer.
Bowser generally liked visiting with everyone. After all, what a great job to have, people petting you all the time and occasional treats from nurses. Once in awhile he would communicate to us that he was not comfortable with someone, and so we would not stay. We always took a walk afterwords, where he could run in the trees and unwind from it all.
Bowser is an old man now and retired from hospital work. However, he still seems to consider himself a therapy dog with clients that I see in our home. He has helped many children to feel comfortable. I remember a young boy on his second visit pronouncing, “Bowser loves me the best.”
My daughter's cat, Sky, who has had no formal training, also seems to consider herself a therapy animal. She tends to conclude that if she sits in your lap, you will feel all better. When a reluctant child found out I had a cat here, he said to his parents, “that changes things.”
Sky is a remarkable cat. She breaks all cat stereotypes with her friendly and social nature. She charms complete strangers by walking right up to them to visit. People take selfies with her. Sky has become somewhat of a celebrity in our neighborhood.
All animals can be therapeutic. I daresay horses were my first therapy as a teenager. Horses have a special and historical relationship with military (My grandfather was enlisted in the US Army’s last Cavalry in World War II). There are many equine therapy programs for veterans across the US. In Colorado, veterans can visit Suzy MacKenzie at Eagles Nest Ranch and ride horses.
Pet therapy works for many reasons. People may find it easier to form a safe and trusting relationship with an animal. Animals are usually pretty honest, loyal, and will love and accept you unconditionally. Animals, large and small, may remind us of our inter-connectedness. They bring us outside of ourselves. They may give us purpose and protection, they may mobilize us, and comfort us. Without question. They intrinsically give us permission to be silly, vulnerable, childish, open, adoring and to touch. Touch is a vital nutrient. As essential as food and water. Touch turns on beneficial molecules in our psychology, neurology, and immunology.