Pet Therapy, White House Style

Today marked the public debut of Bo, the First Dog. After spending the day at Hackensack University Medical Center, where a few special dogs are part of the healing process, I thought I’d revisit the concept of pet therapy I wrote about a few years ago.

Allergic and infection control issues aside, the idea of dogs and other pets visiting children in hospitals seems so intuitively wonderful. Therapy Dogs International, a “volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers,” assists institutions who would like to provide pet therapy for their patients. Founded in 1976 in New Jersey, the non-profit TDI has developed a careful screening and training process, including a canine “temperament evaluation,” and currently has over 19,000 dog/handler teams registered in their service. One special gal, Jane – a Portuguese water dog (the same breed as Bo, pictured with his owner, above) – was profiled a few years ago. Jane is one of several dogs who visit children at the Albany Medical Center. Dr. Richard Sills, director of Albany’s Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders, commented that “the dogs cheer up children and make hospitals more welcoming.” God knows, we need more of that. It all contributes to a healing environment.   

Another well-respected pet therapy organization is the Delta Society, an international, non-profit, human service organization charged with “promoting human health and well-being through interactions with companion animals.” The Delta Society, founded in Oregon in 1977, focuses on the triangular relationship between pet owners, pets and care-givers. Their website provides links to a wealth of information on the positive effects of animals on human health.

For those curious about pet therapy research (yes, it does exist), I found one relevant publication in the Journal of Holistic Nursing (Sobo EJ, et al: Canine visitation (pet) therapy: pilot data on decreases in child pain perception. J Holist Nurs 24: 51-57, 2006). The article describes a pilot pet therapy program in the Children’s Hospital in San Diego. Twenty-five children, ages 5-18, who underwent surgery, reported less pain post-operatively after canine visitation therapy. While only a pilot study, the data are encouraging and indicate that pet therapy may play a valuable role in relieving distress in hospitalized children. Hard to argue with that. Maybe Bo will have a similar effect on the national psyche.

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