I started the program two years ago with my Golden Retriever Whinnie. It was an eye opening experience even for this veteran dog owner. First the testing of the dog for suitability was more intense than I expected, through having worked in all conditions of the hospital I now understand why. It is important that your dog has enough confidence to withstand load noises without bolting, but obedient enough sit, stay and move when told to do so. The dog's temperament is so important. Being social is what's it all about. Whinnie fits the bill very well, as most Golden retrievers would, she aims to please, and loves to be loved. There are many breeds of dogs however that offer people joy. Some are quiet and loving, some are quirky and funny and some just want your attention. All seem to bring a smile to a patient or family member's face.
It is not just the patients and family members who get something out of visiting with the dogs; staff members are busy and dealing with a lot of stress, and a one minute snuggle with a K9 can release a lot of that stress.
Oxytocin is the feel good hormone associated with lactation and breastfeeding. It releases tension and creates trust. What scientists have confirmed is that same hormone is released in humans and dogs every time there is a meaningful interaction such as petting the dog or looking into their eyes. It's no wonder so many busy people have to stop while trying to walk past the pet therapy centre. You see them walking with purpose then they catch a look from the dog, or in some cases the dog stares intently enough and they have to stop. It never fails to bring a smile to their faces. It's a wonderful interaction and both dog and person are left feeling much better.
Then there are the times when there are many people gathered and the dog goes from person to person. Those times are always tricky to navigate, because the "dog lover" is not always the person who is most needy in the group. What I have found is, that isn't my job to figure out. One such day we were busily navigating a group of people when Whinnie walked outside of the circle and made her way purposely to a woman on the outskirts of the group. Having made her way there she firmly planted herself on the woman's feet. Thankfully, the woman in question was thrilled and bent down to pet her. The two gradually ended up on the floor and visited exclusively for sometime. Finally she looked at her watch and said she was late for a meeting, but that visit was just what she needed to get through it. She said if she hadn't already believed in pet therapy, Whinnie's actions of seeking her out would have convinced her.
We went on with our day. I later learned from her that that day was the most stressful of her career, and that interaction was exactly what she needed at that moment.
You never now how or when the therapy part of petting a dog is working, that's the beauty of it. It can be a private moment. One shared with the exchange of oxytocin.
What that exchange does for me as a dog owner and pet therapy handler is also a feel good moment. Knowing my dog can make such a difference with a small interaction makes me feel good about volunteering.
I joke with people all the time about Whinnie's job. She gets to sit there, get attention, be hugged and petted and told she is beautiful a hundred times. What a job, she loves it and who wouldn't? She is however exhausted after a couple of hours at the hospital and all the stimulation and interactions. She drinks a big bowl of water, flops on her bed and sleeps for a long time when we get home.
And although my approach has always been to keep my speaking and visiting to a minimum and let the dog and the visitors have their moment, I too feel tired. It's as though some of the stress of the hospital gets sucked out of the air while we are all there and we have to let it dissipate.
Dogs give a welcome distraction from the many stressful events that happen in a hospital daily. Whether you are a nurse, patient or visitor; taking a moment to lose yourself in the love of a dog can bring a lot of satisfaction to all involved. We all walk away feeling much happier.