From Lassie and Lady to Scooby Doo and Snoopy, famous dog companions have warmed our hearts and stuck by our sides throughout the ages. As faithful and loving creatures, dogs have earned the title of wo/man’s best friend - and rightfully so. Dogs are humble, selfless creatures, who ask nothing of us and yet give us everything in return. A smiling face and a wagging tail to greet you at the end of a long hard day. A ready road trip companion. A furry shoulder to cry on. Dogs do it all.
The Healing Powers Of Pets
Now it appears, dogs can do even more than we thought. It turns out that dogs can help with chronic pain. Dogs have been increasingly domesticated over the years, evolving side-by-side with their human counterparts. Some people think that dogs evolved from wolves and just wanted to compete with us for food, but dogs’ relationship to humans seems to be about so much more. Dogs don’t just hang out with humans for free food, they offer protection and companionship. They have a sixth sense about us that we don’t even understand.
When you are sad or sick, your dog is often the first to know and the first to want to make you feel better. They shower you with attention and seldom leave our sides. How do they seem to know when we are sad or mad? It turns out that science has the answers.
History Of Healing By Animals
In the 1860s, Florence Nightingale was one of the first people to discover that the presence of animals was beneficial to her patients’ recovery. Since then, many different areas of medicine have harnessed the healing power of animals. Oncology, psychology and rheumatology have all found unique ways that dogs can help heal their patients. Nowadays, you can find dogs in many hospital wards as part of the treatment plans for patients, with animal-assisted healing being a key component of holistic treatment plans. Low back pain is also getting in on the action.
Chronic pain, by definition, is often resistant to traditional pain management approaches, so researchers are looking to see how animal-assisted healing can fill in the gaps and mend where medicine seems to fail. In one study of patients suffering from fibromyalgia, researchers found that in as little as 12 minutes, patients who received animal-assisted therapy reported lower incidences of pain, fatigue, and emotional distress.
Another study of 52 older adults with chronic joint pain found that “animal-assisted therapy leads to an additional reduction in the perception of pain and pain induced insomnia in individuals with higher baseline severity.”
How Dogs Can Heal Us
So, how exactly do our little furry friends work their magic?
Research at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom (UK) found that dogs “can recognize emotions in humans by combining information from different senses.” Dogs use a combination of facial recognition, body language, and smell to sense things about their owners.
It is well known that dogs are excellent at detecting cancers and illnesses before they are diagnosed. They do this by smelling certain chemicals in your blood through your breath and body odor. Dogs are also able to pick up the scent of elevated stress hormones (cortisol) in your body, as well as sensing both low and elevated serotonin and dopamine levels.
Therapy dogs are able to decrease our heart rate, lower our blood pressure, slow down our breathing, boost our endorphins and reduce the amount of cortisol we produce. Wow! Is there anything they can’t do? Along with the physiological effects on our bodies, dogs can also provide psychological benefits.
When you are experiencing pain, pets can distract us from the pain by forcing us to concentrate on them, taking our mind off ourselves for a while.
Do I Have To Have A Service Animal To Get Help?
When it comes to working with patients in hospitals or helping patients detect diabetes or prevent seizures the types of dogs that are used generally have some level of specialized training. While we are going to go through the 3 different types of support dogs, the good news is that your favorite furry friend can help you without any type of special training.
How Can My Dog Help Fix Low Back Pain?
Your dog can help reduce lower back pain in a number of different ways.
Encouraging you to be more active by getting you to go for a walk.
Snuggling with you on the couch can increase levels of serotonin, our feel-good hormone, that helps to combat stress levels.
The responsibility of having to take care of someone other than ourselves can take our minds off our own health problems, leading to decreased levels of pain.
Dogs can encourage us to be more social. When we go to the dog park, or take a walk we are more likely to connect with fellow dog owners. This connection with others can also help reduce stress and anxiety, leading to lower perceptions of pain and more chances of engaging in healthy activities.
What Is The Difference Between Emotional Support Dogs, Therapy Dogs and Service Dogs?
When it comes to dogs that are specially trained to work with specific medical conditions it can be confusing to know which term relates to what.
Emotional Support Dogs
According to the United States Dog Registry, “Emotional support dogs are dogs that provide comfort and support in forms of affection and companionship for an individual suffering from various conditions.” Emotional support dogs do not fall under the Americans With Disabilities Act regulations but the Fair Housing Act and The Amended Air Carrier Access Act do apply to emotional support animals.
What this means is that emotional support animals must be permitted to stay in certain types of housing that would otherwise not allow pets, as well as allowing the animals to travel with their owners on airplanes. While emotional support animals don’t require special training, they do need a medical letter of recommendation that can come from either your healthcare provider or your therapist.
Therapy dogs are sort of the next level up. These dogs are typically part of a therapy team and you can find them in hospitals and clinics helping patients with their recovery process. The owner of the dog is responsible for their training and certification which is done through the American Kennel Club.
The dog must pass a series of behavioral, socialization, and therapy courses with a final evaluation at the end of the training. Organizations such as Therapy Dogs International and Pet Partners can provide final certification for therapy dogs.
Once the pet has passed the training, their owner can take them on therapy visits to hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and clinics. Therapy dogs can be a great solution for patients who can’t take on the responsibility of caring for a pet full-time, but still receive the health benefits of pet therapy. Owners must be responsible for well-checks, grooming, and care of the therapy dog.
Service dogs are the highest level of certification that a pet can attain. A service dog is defined as “ a dog that has been trained to perform tasks to assist an individual with disabilities.” Service dogs are able to perform specific tasks on command, such as retrieving dropped objects, fetching medications, waking patients in the morning, and getting help for their owners, if needed.
Service dogs undergo extensive and rigorous training and are therefore more expensive than other types of assistance dogs. It can take up to two years to train a service dog and the cost can range anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000. The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners requires a minimum of 120 hours of training along with a specific list of tasks and requirements. Service dogs are taught to focus only on their owners, ignore distractions, and to help their humans perform certain tasks.
When it comes to chronic pain, a service dog can perform tasks such as:
Getting help in a crisis
Reminding their owner to take their medications
Providing stability and support
Assistance with standing or sitting
Reduce anxiety and stress
Lower breathing and heart rate in stressful situations
The number of ways that our pets can help us is astounding. And they do it all while looking adorable at the same time! They save us from being lonely and selfish, keep us active, help us relax, and introduce us to new people all the time.
You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a fully trained service animal to reap the health benefits of pet ownership. Just a trip down to your local shelter will get you unconditional love and friendship that can last a lifetime.
Check area listings for a shelter in your neighborhood and save a pet’s life. It could just save yours at the same time!