by Lisa Bowman
Seniors suffering from dementia, with its accompanying memory loss and cognitive dysfunction, inevitably feel confused and lonely. But when a four-legged friend walks over with a wagging tail and dabs a soft tongue on their hand, it has a calming effect and bring smiles to otherwise blank faces. Pet therapy may not have complete scientific data to prove its worth, but anecdotally it packs a punch. For low functioning seniors, dogs appear to provide companionship, comfort, and even laughter, enhancing their quality of life.
Dogs are the overwhelmingly logical choice in pet therapy, given that cats are less people-oriented and gold fish are simply not very cuddly. The use of dogs in modern therapeutic situations has its origins in child psychology. Pioneer child psychologist Dr. Boris Levinson coined the term “pet therapy” in 1964, after observing that the mere presence in the office of his dog, Jingles, noticeably lowered anxiety levels in his young patients.
Dr. Levinson was not the first person to observe the healing power of dogs, however. Iconic British nurse Florence Nightingale used what she called “animal-companion therapy” with wounded soldiers in the early 19th-century. Furthermore, at the turn of the 20th-century, Dr. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, brought his Chow Chow to therapy sessions, most especially to children’s appointments. He firmly believed that “Jo-Fi” possessed a “special sense” that aided and comforted his patients, which in turn, enhanced treatments.
Although science has yet to fully quantify the effects of pet therapy, its qualitative effects are obvious, explaining why dog therapy is widely used in assisted living arrangements these days to warm the hearts of residents who struggle with emotional, physical and cognitive issues. These assisted living facilities regularly utilize canine “joy experts” to lift the spirits and help focus the minds of residents.
The Kensington is an assisted living and memory residence in sleepy Sierra Madre, California. Brandy Valencia always brings her personal rescue dog, Forest, to work; Ms. Valencia is Kensington’s Executive Director and Forest is the facility’s beloved de facto mascot. He has a lot of love in him, and he knows how to use it.
Forest makes a beeline for the Haven neighborhood, where the lower-functioning, memory-impaired guests receive care. He gets exuberant greetings from the patients; seeing Forest triggers warm memories of other beloved dogs from their own past and of living in their own homes with those wonderful pets.
Inside Haven, a few guests are having breakfast, a couple of women are playing cards with a caregiver and a resident at another table has nodded off. “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady” is playing in the background. All the songs played are drawn from eras when these seniors were in their prime, making them most likely to sound familiar.
Nearby, seven other residents have gathered in a bright and airy room waiting for the official therapy dog, Ash, to arrive … but before he does Forest prances in to check on his elderly friends. He knows each one and, to varying degrees, they know him. Either way, their faces light up as he dances by.
Ash and his handler, Lisa Erving, come in a short while later. Ash is a magnificent 6-year-old long-coat Akita. He is larger than life, as sturdy and low key as Forest is delicate and bubbly.
A devoted team, Ash and his Lisa have completed almost 700 therapy visits, regularly going to diverse places, such as the Boys and Girls Club of LA, United Paws at Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles Mission, Jewish Home for the Aging, and the Special Olympics. They work through Silverado Hospice and Lend A Paw (a program of New Leash on Life), making appearances at least twice a week all around the LA basin.
A deep understanding between a therapy dog and the handler is paramount.
As a team, a therapy dog and the handler/owner perform a complex pas de deux. The handler must always be sensitive to the animal’s needs and the dog must remain focused and responsive to the handler throughout the long visits. As Lisa says, both parties need to be “…well mannered, gentle, kind, and patient.”
To the observer, the dance is delicately balanced: it cannot be rushed, it is predictably unpredictable, and it requires great emotional stamina. Today Lisa repeats herself endlessly in conversations with the residents, yet manages to make each repetition equally warm and friendly. Ash is unwaveringly calm. He responds gently when called upon, and if he’s not needed when the guests are talking to Lisa, he quietly lies down to recharge his batteries in a room that may be too warm for someone with a double coat of fur.
Ash says, “Don’t worry, been there, done this…almost 700 times.”
Ash cools his heels. The visit demands a lot from him, as Lisa gives each patient multiple opportunities to interact with him. Time is offered leisurely and generously.
The residents react to Ash in different ways. One woman decides that “Ash” is an inappropriate name for a dog and voices her concern several times. Others choose just to watch him, while others do not want to interact at all. But everyone notices him and it appears that each guest is getting something positive out of the experience, even if they’re unable to articulate it or to emotionally respond.
Lisa says, “There are so many reasons why I love pet therapy, but the best part of being a handler is making the world a bit more beautiful, with the help of my best friends.”
Ash isn’t the only pet therapy dog in Lisa’s family. Cinder, Ash’s younger sister (from another litter) has 451 visits under her collar. Lisa relates a magical story concerning Cinder and an elderly lady. It illuminates the mysterious, soul-healing power created by the connection between dogs and humans.
“At the Jewish Home for the Aging, we usually walk the hallways and pop into rooms to say ‘Hi.’ Cinder and I were walking around when I peeked in a room and saw the tiniest lady, hooked up to a lot of machines. So, I stuck my head in and asked if she liked dogs. No answer…I told myself, ‘Okay, let’s move on’. As we turned around to leave, Cinder ran around me, right between the lady’s bed and me.
When the woman saw Cinder, her face changed from nothingness to ‘I’m in love’ in a second. The lady motioned for Cinder to come closer, and she did. Even with all the wires, cables and tubing, Cinder found a place on the bed to rest her head. The lady couldn’t speak, but I saw the love in her eyes. Cinder sat there for a good half hour on that first meeting, and let the lady gently rub her head.
I didn’t want to rush them, so I looked around her room: no cards, no pictures, nothing personal. It made me a little sad. We left some pictures and stuff for her wall, and then looked for a nurse to get her name. I found out she didn’t have any family and she was on hospice care. We came back 2 weeks later and Cinder headed straight to her room. I think Cinder knew how much she was loved. We stayed (there) the whole visit.
After that we made weekly visits to see her until she passed a few months later. She was never able to speak to me, but she and Cinder seemed to have endless conversations, and a very unique friendship.”
Lisa labels what she and her dogs do as “Sharing the Love.”
It’s true that the scientific community is still trying to answer the question, “Does pet therapy actually improve a patient’s health, or does the patient simply feel happier after petting a dog?” It’s an important, valid question and the eventual findings should be interesting.
But in the meantime, an army of dogs and handlers is out there, easing people’s loneliness, bringing them joy and offering a better quality of life by sharing the love.