The calming and soothing effect of animal love

Animals have the power to speak a great language.

Used for centuries as companions and work animals, they humanize the world in difficult times.

For many, they are a gift to mankind and serve as a reminder of our responsibility to preserve and care for all life.

Walking slowly down the halls of a local retirement home, a Golden Retriever brushes lightly past the elderly and frail. He stops to be petted and shower his affection on residents.

“It’s amazing what Frodo brings-out in people. I think he brings-out the best and people feel reassured in his presence,” says Allison Handelman, the Golden Retriever’s owner.

A Team Leader with Therapeutic Paws of Canada, Allison, has enjoyed her visits over the past two years to Helen Henderson Care Centre.

Located in the heart of Amherstview, the centre is home to more than 170 residents who require long-term care and assisted living.

Pet therapy is one of many programs offered at the accredited home.

“I love coming here,” Allison, 48, notes from the retirement lodge where residents eagerly await Frodo’s arrival.

Watching closely as Frodo greets every residents with trust and love, Allison sees firsthand the impact of pet therapy.

“You can see their face change. Their eyes light up,” she says about residents’ interaction with the six-year-old dog.

“Frodo and I have had wonderful experiences with residents here. It’s been incredible. Residents have been easy to visit with. They make us feel at home.”

Allison and Frodo are one of four teams of volunteer dogs & handlers from Therapeutic Paws of Canada who conduct pet therapy at Helen Henderson Care Centre. At least one team visits the home one-hour every week.

Considered an effective way to decrease blood pressure and anxiety in residents, pet therapy is a guided interaction between an individual and a trained animal. Dogs and cats are the most commonly used therapeutic animals.

Benefits to people include:
• improved fine motor skills
• improved assisted or independent movement
• increased self-esteem
• decreased anxiety or loneliness
• increased verbal communication
• developed social skills
• increased willingness to join in activities
• improved interactions with others
• motivated willingness to exercise

Consistent interaction with pets has shown to cause an increased release of serotonin and dopamine in the human brain; helping to calm and soothe us.

“With regular visiting, it (pet therapy) can help with depression because it creates social interactions with other residents,” says Allison.

According to experts, physical benefits of pet therapy include reduced blood pressure, heart rate and overall stress. Emotional benefits include reduced anxiety, depression and decreased loneliness. Mental benefits include increased stimulation by talking to the pet directly; asking questions to the dog’s owner; and, talking with other residents about the dog.

According to Allison, people share their stories when they interact with the dog which engages memories and builds good mental health.

“Who doesn’t get relaxed petting a dog?” she asks. “They (residents) want to kiss and hug him. They miss that part of their lives.”

“And some people need more hugs then other people,” she adds, referring to the loneliness that can accompany old age.

“The love of a pet can’t be underestimated,” she notes.

“They live in the moment. They don’t judge. They have unconditional love.”

Looking at Frodo with tenderness, Allison comments, “I feel lucky to be able to share his love with people.”

Featured in photo: Allison & Frodo