Pet Therapy Barks Up the Right Tree

Pet Therapy Barks Up the Right Tree

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many things, including the value of our relationships—and this extends beyond human connections. Although contact with other people has been limited over the past year and a half, our furry friends have helped fill the gap when it comes to our emotional and mental health.

In fact, a poll from the University of Michigan recently revealed about 10% of all US adults between the ages of 50 and 80 adopted a new pet between March 2020 and January 2021.

Pets provide companionship and unconditional love, which can yield many physical and mental health benefits. Studies have shown pet ownership is associated with better overall fitness, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, decreased anxiety, and improved happiness and well-being.

Pet Therapy Works Like a Dog

Holland Hospital is no stranger to harnessing the healing power of animals. Since 2003, several therapy dogs have become regular visitors to the hospital. “Right now our therapy dogs have to sit in the doorway just outside patient rooms due to COVID-19 protocols, but their impact is still very much felt,” said Deb Chesney, volunteer coordinator, Holland Hospital Volunteer Services. “Everyone is so glad to have the pups back.”

Along with making patients smile, laugh or feel more at ease, therapy dogs at the hospital have also lifted the spirits of staff, especially during the pandemic. “The extra cuddling has helped them focus on something besides COVID-19,” Chesney said. “They’ve given our staff a big boost. It’s been an eye-opening and nurturing experience.”

Part of the Volunteer Services department, Holland Hospital’s pet therapy program has been around since 2003. Currently the hospital welcomes visits from more than 10 therapy dogs, ranging from Newfoundlands to Golden Retrievers to a Boxer mix. In order to visit the hospital with their owners and volunteer handlers, dogs must pass rigorous training and be certified through Wyoming-based Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

Dogs typically visit at the hospital for about an hour each week. Common places visited include the fourth and fifth floors, as well as the behavioral health unit on the sixth floor. “Our volunteers get a lot out of these visits, too,” Chesney said. “Sometimes they come back with tears in their eyes, and they’ve joked about patients knowing their dog’s name but not theirs.”

Once rare and thought to only spread germs, animal-assisted therapy is much more common in hospital, nursing home and school settings these days. Programs even exist where animals assist with physical therapy, tutoring and in disaster sites or traumatic situations.

For hospitalized patients and their loved ones, having a big (or small), lovable ball of fur can bring some much-needed joy during a time that can feel lonely and overwhelming. The act of simply petting a dog for a few minutes can be soothing and raise "feel good" hormones.

“Dogs provide a natural dose of stress relief,” Chesney said. “They just help people take their mind off of things.”

For more on Holland Hospital’s pet therapy program, call Deb Chesney at (616) 394-3140.

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