Therapy Dogs and Their Benefits to Senior Citizens
As the United States population shifts to more people over the age of 65 than ever before, healthcare providers are searching for new methods to help address some of the specific concerns of senior citizens. According to the Pew Research Center, every day for the next 19 years, 10,000 baby boomers will reach age 65. There are many people for whom medication and therapy may not be enough to combat the need for daily assistance; but often in these cases, moving out of the home and into a nursing care facility isn’t necessary. In addition to private healthcare providers that can visit the home every day, many seniors are exploring the idea of therapy dogs as a way to help them with their everyday needs. Dogs can be trained for many types of therapy, and their care is often more affordable than a private healthcare provider.
Benefits of Therapy Dogs
It doesn’t take a scientist to know that pets make humans feel good; anyone who’s ever stroked a dog’s fur or felt a cat’s thrumming purr knows this. Science can, however, tell us how and why pets can be therapeutic. Just 15 minutes bonding with an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowering levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol and increasing production of the feel-good hormone serotonin. The result: heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels immediately drop. Over the long term, pet and human interactions can lower cholesterol levels, fight depression and may even help protect against heart disease and stroke. This is why pets for the elderly can be so beneficial. A 2009 study confirmed that having a companion dog improved the anxiety levels of elderly residents of a long term care facility.
Therapy Dogs- Mental Benefits
Seniors suffer from depression usually as a result of loneliness or isolation, either because friends and family members cannot visit on a regular basis, or they aren’t as active as they previously were. Perhaps a loving spouse has passed away. Contact with supportive animals can bring some withdrawn seniors out of their shells, making them happier and more communicative. Studies show that seniors who are active and always around others, or who own a pet, decline in health far less rapidly than isolated or depressed seniors.
Dogs are also a source of mental stimulation. Whether reading about breeds and pet care, or talking to others about dogs, elderly minds can benefit. Dogs can help relieve the stresses of people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Dementia patients experience bouts of agitation, and dogs can help calm them down. Interacting with a dog can stimulate the appetite of people who might otherwise not eat regularly as a result of these conditions. Having a dog in a senior’s life can help improve their well-being and give new meaning to their life. Due to the numerous health benefits support dogs provide, many assisted living facilities are starting to include pet therapy in their regular senior care. Being around a dog makes people feel better, healthier, and happier.
Therapy Dogs- Physical Benefits
Seniors with heart conditions who own pets tend to outlive those who don’t. The American Heart Association released a study showing that owning or interacting with dogs can help prevent heart disease. Walking a dog provides much-needed physical exercise, which leads to improved mobility and a healthier lifestyle overall. Petting a dog can help work out arthritic hands and arms. Dogs provide emotional stability during stressful situations, helping to reduce anxiety and depression. Being with a dog can help reduce cortisol, a stress hormone, and help boost levels of the serotonin. Dogs seem to have an amazing instinct for when sad or frightened people need to be comforted. For seniors facing fears of the future or surgery, a pup can help someone stay in the moment.
What are the different types of therapy dogs?
- Therapeutic Visitation Dogs
- Disaster Relief Dogs
- Facility Therapy Dogs
- Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs
- Reading Therapy Dogs
What are the best breeds of therapy dogs?
Because a good therapy dog must have a calm and gentle demeanor, the most important things to bear in mind when choosing a canine to serve as a therapy dog are the animal’s temperament and how easily the dog can be trained.
Some of the best breeds for therapy work are:
- French Bulldog
- King Charles Spaniel
- Bichon Frise
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
- German Shepherd
- Saint Bernard
- Great Dane
- Bernese Mountain Dog
NOTE: Although any size dog can make a great therapy animal, small dogs are particularly well-suited for the job because they can be easily lifted onto a person’s hospital bed, or held in the patient’s arms.
Do therapy dogs require special training?
Practically any dog, regardless of breed, may be eligible for therapy dog certification, provided that it can pass the required training and temperament testing, such as the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test. Passing the CGC Test is a requirement for many therapy dog groups, and the official AKC test includes:
- Sitting politely for petting
- Appearance and grooming
- Walking on a loose lead
- Walking through a crowd
- Sit and lay down on command
- Coming when called
- Reaction to another dog
- Reaction to distraction
- Supervised separation
Do therapy dogs have to be certified or registered?
There are many different organizations which offer therapy dog certification and/or registration, and each organization has its own standards and protocols.
However, all organizations that deal with therapy dog certification typically share common ground in their training and temperament requirements for any therapy dog candidates. Additionally, some medical institutions require therapy dogs to be registered or certified by an official organization, prior to allowing the dog-handler-team to operate on their premises.
Mike Callahan is Content Manager for companionanimals.org which promotes education, respect, and understanding for America’s working animals. Mike is a blogger by day, and pet enthusiast, husband and father all the time. Mike has growing writing history on service, therapy, and emotional support animals, which started after personal experiences.