Shannon Whitecotton’s six dogs have taught her patience, tolerance, how to love unconditionally. They keep life interesting. “We have learned that food can and will be eaten if left on a counter …
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• Pets can be social magnets.
• Pets give owners a sense of belonging and meaning.
• Pets teach responsibility and commitment.
• Pets help lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety.
• Dog owners get more physical activity.
Research shows dogs benefit the mental and physical health of their owners, but many serve additional purposes. The specially trained animals are referred to as therapy and service dogs.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service dog is one that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.
A person with diabetes may have a dog that is trained to alert him or her to dangerous changes in blood-sugar levels. A person with hearing loss may have a dog that alerts him or her to surrounding sounds. Some service dogs guide the blind.
Though service dogs are not required to wear a vest, ID tag or specific harness, some wear brightly colored vests. Under the ADA, businesses with a “no animal” policy must allow service animals.
Therapy dogs are used in some schools, hospitals, assisted living homes, airports and areas affected by natural disasters. Accompanied by their owners as volunteers, these dogs are intended to provide comfort and love.
Most settings require proof of a training certification prior to letting a therapy dog visit. The dogs must have a gentle and sweet personality, as should their owners, training organizations say.
At Children’s Hospital Colorado, therapy dogs in the Pet Prescription program make rounds to patient rooms to distract and entertain children who are fighting life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer, as well as their families. The dogs may also assist kids in therapy sessions.
“It’s helpful for regulating and calming kids, and helping them feel more social,” said Dr. Robin Gabriels, program director of Neuropsychiatric Special Care at Children’s Hospital. “Animals do not judge and can create an atmosphere of positive acceptance.”
— Alex DeWind
Shannon Whitecotton’s six dogs have taught her patience, tolerance, how to love unconditionally. They keep life interesting.
“We have learned that food can and will be eaten if left on a counter or table, that six dogs can and will fit on a king-size bed with two adults, that they will surround a sick child of any age for comfort,” said Whitecotton, a Highlands Ranch resident. “And they are yours for life.”
Rachel Beieler’s life had become a series of repetitive to-do lists, she said, until she met Stella, a mutt with wiry black hair. She bought the timid puppy for $100 at a pet shop. It had been there nine months and would soon have been sent to a pound if no one took it home.
“Her eyes were watering and narrow from the sunlight – she had only been accustomed to the fluorescent bulbs in the pet store for the majority of her life,” said Beieler, of Aurora.
“Every month that Stella and I were together she got a little more confidence, a little less awkward and scared.”
When people commend Beieler for saving her dog’s life, she tells them her dog saved hers.
Whitecotton’s and Beieler’s stories are reflective of the impact an animal can have on a person or family. About 44 percent of all households in the United States have a dog and 35 percent have a cat, according to the American Pet Products Association. And about 78 million dogs and 85.8 million cats are pets across the country.
Pets benefit the physical and mental health of people in a number of ways, several mental health organizations and medical providers say.
They can be catalysts for social interaction and exercise partners. They can act as alarm clocks, home security systems and vacuum cleaners. They form irreplaceable bonds with their humans. They step in when people step out.
“I care for my cats like they are my children,” Highlands Ranch resident Meghan Maxwell said. “They are great companions and fill my life with laughter and cuddles. They know when I’m upset or had a bad day and they follow me around and give me extra love.”
For children, caring for a pet can teach valuable life traits, including responsibility, kindness and patience, says the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Pets can contribute to a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence, and help develop trusting relationships with other people.
“A child who learns to care for an animal, and treat it kindly and patiently, may get invaluable training in learning to treat people the same way,” the academy says.
Specially trained dogs protect and assist people with disabilities or serious illnesses. They guide individuals with sensory issues, such as blindness or hearing loss. They respond to seizures in people with epilepsy.
They help paralyzed people with tasks and mobility.
Specially trained dogs are also used in clinical settings.
In 1984, Children’s Hospital Colorado implemented its Prescription Pet program, a dog-assisted therapy and visitation program. Owners volunteer to take their trained dogs — which are required to pass a screening and get approval from a veterinarian — to patients’ rooms at several of the hospital’s campuses. The visits range from a few minutes to 15 minutes or longer, the hospital’s website says.
Therapy dogs used in counseling and some types of physical therapy help regulate and calm patients, said Dr. Robin Gabriels, program director of Neuropsychiatric Special Care at Children’s Hospital. She primarily works with kids with autism and a psychiatric diagnosis.
“Dogs can bridge rapport building with therapist,” Gabriels said. “Dog behaviors can increase a child’s playfulness and positive mood, providing a stimulus for positive interaction and brightening mood.”
A study published by the American Psychological Association in 2011 found that pet owners were just as close to important people in their lives as to their animals. The researchers found that pets benefited the lives of their humans by serving as “an important source of emotional support.”
When Amanda Arnce had back surgery, leaving her bedridden for weeks, she bonded with her sister’s kitten, named Kitten. Now, 15 years later, Kitten belongs to Arnce.
“Kitten loved that I was basically a human heating blanket,” said Arnce, of Highlands Ranch. “She is my soul cat. There will be other cats in my life, but the bond we have is special.”
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