Therapy-dog visits alleviate stress, improve well-being

St. John Ambulance’s therapy-dog program brightens the lives of people living in hospices and in other residential and educational settings

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      Farley reminds Dan Persyko of his old friend Bongo. Bongo was a poodle-terrier mix, and Farley looks a bit like the man’s former pet.

      In a living room at the St. John Hospice at UBC, where Persyko’s daughter Sarah and her family were gathered to see him, Persyko fondly recalled how he used to play a harmonica and get a “really melodic howl” out of Bongo.

      At his feet was Farley, a Havanese that owner Lizbeth Stoner takes to the hospice twice a week to visit residents. “That’s the sweetest dog in the world,” Persyko told the Georgia Straight with delight about his new friend.

      Farley is one of more than 500 canines that visit people in health, residential, and educational settings across the province under St. John Ambulance’s therapy-dog program. (There is no connection between St. John Ambulance—the biggest provider of first-aid training in B.C.—and St. John Hospice.)

      Stoner is a volunteer with the program. According to her, the compact dog enlivens the day for residents in the hospice.

      “I pick up Farley, and then even the grouchiest person will break out into a smile because he’s soft, he’s cuddly, he’s cute,” Stoner told the Straight.

      With the dog around, she and the residents talk about things other than what hospices are for.

      “You’re not talking about death; you’re not talking about dying. You’re talking about living and what is going on today,” Stoner said.

      Stanley Coren, a UBC professor emeritus of psychology, has written several books about dogs and their relationship with humans. According to Coren, people feel more relaxed and less stressed around dogs.

      Sigmund Freud had a dog by the name of Jofi, Coren said by phone, relating that the father of psychoanalysis wrote in his journals that with the pet around, patients tended to open up more during therapy sessions.

      He went on to say that American child psychologist Boris Levinson noted in the 1960s how autistic patients were more responsive when his golden retriever Jingles was present.

      Coren also said that in the 1980s, U.S.-based psychologist Alan Beck and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher were able to show physiological evidence that when a person pets a friendly dog, the individual’s heart rate and blood pressure go down and breathing becomes more regular. He added that American scientist Erika Friedmann found that survivors of heart attacks who had pets were about five times more likely to be alive a year later than those without.

      The UBC professor emeritus likewise pointed to a study that came out in January this year about cancer patients at the Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in New York City. According to him, the study showed that on the day of visitation by therapy dogs, patients requested less painkilling medication and seemed to be more motivated to continue with their treatments.

      “We have bred them to be empathetic,” Coren said. “So we bred dogs to be able to respond to our moods and our social signals. And we’ve been working on that for about 14,000 years.”

      Over on Vancouver Island, volunteers with the Pacific Animal Therapy Society visit people accompanied by dogs and other pets, such as cats, rabbits, and goats. The group once had an alpaca as well, according to PATS volunteer Kim Bialkowski, who goes to a nursing home for veterans in Victoria with her bloodhound Au.

      “The dog gets mobbed from the minute I walk in,” Bialkowski said, laughing, during a phone interview with the Straight. When residents settle down and pet Au, they start talking about the pets they had in the past, relieving some of the loneliness they feel.

      Members of the nonprofit Pets and Friends provide comfort to people in various facilities in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley by bringing over their dogs, cats, and rabbits.

      “We’ve heard many, many stories from our volunteers who visited senior care homes where a lot of people have dementia,” the group’s administrative assistant, Daphne Parker, told the Straight by phone. “And they see that the pet visits really often help to calm the patient with dementia if they’re agitated or will brighten them up to the point where they will speak and make total sense to the pet when they haven’t been able to speak prior to that for several months.”

      Parker knows this firsthand because she and her shih tzu Liam visit a day centre for seniors with dementia.

      In addition to being marketing director for B.C. and the Yukon for St. John Ambulance, René Bernstein has Oliver, a dachshund. Bernstein and Oliver used to visit an assisted-living facility, and Bernstein is eager to get back into this again.

      “These dogs come and they give unconditional love and support,” Bernstein told the Straight about what therapy animals do.

      Back at the St. John Hospice, Farley’s owner, Lizbeth Stoner, said her dog will be a companion to Persyko and the other residents for the remaining days of their lives. When the time comes, and if she and her pet are around, Stoner said that Farley will be there at their side, a friend to the end.