Research shows therapy dogs help veterans
A small, golden dog named Kendi sits on Don Barrett’s lap, playfully licking the elderly man’s finger. Barrett, a 96-year-old war veteran, says dogs like this one bring back some of his favourite memories.
The self-proclaimed animal lover was part of a research project that studied the health effects of therapy dogs on elderly veterans.
“I think animals know whether you like them or not. I tickled his chin and he was licking me and we got along famously,” Barrett said about a different dog he met two or three times last year.
He said the therapy dogs reminded him of his own dogs. Barrett shared stories of his spaniel and Border Collie leaving a trail of carrot tops in his garden, and how they loved going for walks. His eyes welled up when the tale ended with having to put the dogs down.
Memories like Barrett’s were an important finding in the research conducted by University of Saskatchewan professors like Dr. Colleen Dell, who saw how cathartic it was for veterans to reminisce.
“That feeling of enjoyment. They felt comfort and support,” she said.
One of the most surprising research findings was how therapy dogs’ handlers play a huge role in helping veterans express their feelings, Dell added.
Most veterans who took part in the study had a variety of health issues. Dell said in some cases, the dogs seemed to temporarily suppress their symptoms. Andrea Serack, a handler with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program, said she worked with a man who had terrible coughing spells.
“Those went away when he started talking and concentrating more on (the dog), holding her, keeping her from falling,” Serack said. “It took them into a different state of mind completely.”
“That bond began to develop over time. So as soon as he would see the animal, then it was just like lighting up.... That physical affection is not something a lot of the elders may be receiving.”
War veteran Don Barrett plays with therapy dog Kendi during a news conference at the University of Saskatchewan on Friday. Researchers were studying the effects the dogs have on elderly veterans.