PET PROJECT

Best Health - - CONTENTS - by AN­DREA KARR

How dogs boost our health

Re­search is telling us what dog lovers al­ready know: our furry friends have a huge im­pact on our health and well-be­ing. But it’s the work­ing dogs us­ing their spe­cial skills (and un­con­di­tional love) to help peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, dis­or­ders and men­tal health con­cerns that are the real MVPs (Most Valu­able Pups). |

FOR NEARLY NINE YEARS, JEN­NIFER HAL­L­I­day did not get a good night’s rest. In­stead of sleep­ing in bed with her hus­band, she spent the wee hours com­fort­ing her son, Ciaran, as he tossed, turned and stimmed — self-stim­u­la­tory be­hav­iour found in chil­dren with autism spec­trum disorder. “He’d take my hand and rub his fin­ger­nails up against mine to make a click,” she says. “He’d do that all night.” He couldn’t sleep in his bed alone be­cause he would wake up and dis­turb the en­tire house­hold, in­clud­ing his younger brother. And be­cause Ciaran wasn’t get­ting much rest, he’d fall asleep at school and act out in frus­tra­tion — mean­ing his par­ents had to give him the bulk of their time and en­ergy.

But all of that changed in the fall of 2016, when Ciaran was nine. The Hal­l­i­day fam­ily wel­comed Dana, a Laber­nese ser­vice dog from Que­bec’s Mira Foun­da­tion, into their home. Now, Dana lies at the foot of Ciaran’s bed ev­ery night and he can take her paw and click his nails against hers if he needs to calm him­self. “Even if he’s toss­ing and turn­ing and kicks her, she’ll just move on to the f loor, but she’ll never leave the room,” Hal­l­i­day

“JUST LIKE HU­MANS, EACH DOG IS DIF­FER­ENT: SOME ARE ANXIOUS IN PUB­LIC SPA­CES, LACK CON­FI­DENCE OR ARE SEN­SI­TIVE TO NOISE”

says. Ciaran started sleep­ing bet­ter al­most im­me­di­ately, which means that the rest of the fam­ily is sleep­ing, too. “I had no idea how lit­tle sleep I was get­ting,” she says. “Or how amaz­ing you could feel af­ter get­ting a few months of good rest.”

That dogs can have a ther­a­peu­tic ef­fect on hu­mans is a tale as old as time (or at least as old as the adage “man’s best friend”), but only in the past two decades has that bond been ex­am­ined in depth. Sev­eral stud­ies have shown that spend­ing time with and pet­ting a dog, es­pe­cially your own pup, can re­duce heart rate, lower blood pres­sure and even mit­i­gate spikes in the pres­ence of stres­sors. Dogs can also im­prove hu­man in­ter­ac­tion and mood, and de­crease self-re­ported fear and anx­i­ety. One study showed that lev­els of the stress hor­mone cor­ti­sol in chil­dren with autism spec­trum disorder dropped dras­ti­cally (from 58 per­cent to 10 per­cent) upon wak­ing when a ser­vice dog was pre­sent in the fam­ily, and spiked to 48 per­cent when the dog was re­moved.

A 2012 study pub­lished in Fron­tiers in Psy­chol­ogy hy­poth­e­sized that many of these pos­i­tive ben­e­fits of hu­man-an­i­mal in­ter­ac­tion are due to an in­crease in oxy­tocin, a feel-good hor­mone of­ten re­ferred to as the “love drug.” Oxy­tocin has many pos­i­tive ef­fects on the hu­man body, from so­cial gains like in­creased em­pa­thy and de­creased ag­gres­sion, to anti-stress, and pos­si­bly even an­ti­inf lam­ma­tory ben­e­fits. Plus, it can im­prove the func­tion of the parasym­pa­thetic ner­vous sys­tem, which can en­hance rest and di­ges­tive func­tion. Hu­man-to-dog in­ter­ac­tion, es­pe­cially pet­ting and eye con­tact, sig­nif­i­cantly in­creases oxy­tocin in both hu­mans and dogs, with the pre-ex­ist­ing close­ness of the re­la­tion­ship play­ing a role, too.

Stud­ies like these en­dorse the use of dogs in a va­ri­ety of ca­pac­i­ties — such as pro­vid­ing mo­bil­ity as­sis­tance, med­i­cal alerts and com­pan­ion­ship to peo­ple with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties. But dogs can also of­fer emo­tional sup­port to vet­er­ans with post trau­matic stress disorder (PTSD) and peo­ple with other men­tal health con­cerns, and work as fa­cil­ity dogs in treat­ment set­tings, schools and court­rooms. These dogs all go by dif­fer­ent names, from ser­vice dog or fa­cil­ity dog, to emo­tional sup­port dog and ther­apy dog (see def­i­ni­tions in side­bar).

It takes a spe­cial pup to be­come a work­ing dog that con­trib­utes spe­cial­ized ser­vices 24/7, and the right or­ga­ni­za­tion to train and match them. Na­tional Ser­vice Dogs (NSD) is one of eight pro­grams in Canada to be ac­cred­ited by As­sis­tance Dogs In­ter­na­tional. And they do their best to en­sure the best home place­ment for each dog by tak­ing into ac­count his or her in­di­vid­ual strengths, weak­nesses and in­ter­ests. “What do they like to do? What do they not like to do? What’s their en­ergy level? Are they body sen­si­tive? Are they sound sen­si­tive?” says Danielle Forbes, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at NSD. Just like hu­mans, each dog is dif­fer­ent: some are anxious in pub­lic spa­ces, lack con­fi­dence or are sen­si­tive to noise and might never make it to ser­vice or fa­cil­ity an­i­mal sta­tus. The dogs that do move for­ward are placed in their ca­reers based on the work they en­joy. “We call it work, but if we’ve done our jobs right, those dogs are just go­ing out and play­ing,” says Forbes.

Match­ing the right dog with the right per­son is in­te­gral and the train­ers at Mira Foun­da­tion got it right when it came to match­ing Dana with the Hal­l­i­day fam­ily. When Jen­nifer de­scribed Ciaran’s needs to them, she men­tioned his stim­ming — rub­bing his fin­ger­nails against her own. “I re­mem­ber the train­ers look­ing at one an­other, al­most as if they knew what dog to pick,” she says. When Jen­nifer even­tu­ally met their fu­ture pup Dana in Que­bec for train­ing, the first thing Dana did was roll on her back and of­fer Jen­nifer her paw. Sim­i­larly, the train­ers at NSD found the per­fect dog to pull the blan­kets off the bed for a client who suf­fered from nightmares due to PTSD. “It’s like the big­gest game of tug of war on the planet, and he gets to win ev­ery sin­gle time,” says Forbes. “That’s not work for him.”

While most ser­vice dogs re­quire the abil­ity to com­plete repet­i­tive tasks, of­ten with just one per-

son as the fo­cus, fa­cil­ity dogs of­ten work with many peo­ple in a ther­a­peu­tic or clin­i­cal set­ting and are cho­sen for an­other gift: their so­cia­bil­ity. For Del­ray, a play­ful black Lab that has ex­cel­lent peo­ple skills, the Pa­cific As­sis­tance Dog So­ci­ety (PADS) knew there was only one ca­reer path for him. He’s now the first full-time fa­cil­ity dog in North Amer­ica to of­fer psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port to EMS work­ers. He’s been shad­ow­ing his han­dler Erica Ol­son, the co­or­di­na­tor for Al­berta Health Ser­vice’s PAWS pro­gram, rais­ing men­tal health aware­ness and re­spond­ing to acute stress calls — for in­stance, if a para­medic is deal­ing with ac­cu­mu­lated job stress or has a rough shift. The thing he does best is bring a smile to peo­ple’s faces. “He has a fan­tas­tic com­mand called ‘Go say hi,’” says Ol­son. “He’ll turn on his wig­gle like you’ve turned on a light switch.” He even in­tu­itively seems to know what oth­ers need. At one drop-in, Del­ray greeted an emer­gency med­i­cal tech­ni­cian, then pro­ceeded to gen­tly lean against her legs. The EMT had re­sponded to a re­ally hard call just that morn­ing and it was as though Del­ray could sense her stress and wanted to com­fort her, even though he hadn’t been di­rected to do so.

It’s dogs like Del­ray and Dana that are mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in the lives of in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies all across the coun­try, and their wag­ging tails, warm puppy eyes and in­cred­i­ble loy­alty are blaz­ing the trail for an­i­mal-as­sisted in­ter­ven­tion in the fu­ture. For now, these “good boys and girls” de­serve more than just a belly rub — even if their work feels like play to them.

QIF SER­VICE DOGS CAN OF­FER ALL THESE BEN­E­FITS, THEN EV­ERY­ONE SHOULD HAVE A PET DOG, RIGHT? AN­SWER: Though the many ways that pups can im­prove our well-be­ing con­tinue to be doc­u­mented, dogs aren't a blan­ket pre­scrip­tion for ev­ery­one, says Dar­lene Chalmers, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of so­cial work at the Univer­sity of Regina, whose re­search spe­cial­izes in the hu­man-an­i­mal bond. “There’s a big com­mit­ment to hav­ing an an­i­mal. For some peo­ple, it may be added stress — an ad­di­tional pres­sure to fac­tor into one’s life.” You may end up adopt­ing or pur­chas­ing a pet that re­quires potty train­ing, obe­di­ence lessons and even a bit of an at­ti­tude ad­just­ment. Is it worth it? Quite pos­si­bly. But first make sure the time and fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment fits into your life­style.

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