Latimer: Therapy dogs for mental health

Three Canadian universities are currently studying the benefits of matching dogs with people experiencing mental illness and addictions.

If you’ve ever had a dog you likely understand why they got the title of ‘man’s best friend.’

There is little to compare with the loyal and loving presence of a canine companion. On a rough day, their furry presence can provide a lot of comfort.

Dogs have been used to provide this sense of comfort in hospitals, nursing homes, and other settings for several years. Therapy dogs are generally very popular and credited with bringing some joy into difficult places.

Three Canadian universities are currently involved in a study examining the benefits of matching dogs with people experiencing mental illness and addictions.

For this study, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Regina and McMaster University are collaborating to determine the effects of therapy dogs.

Three organizations working with homeless, mentally ill and addicted clients in Saskatoon received regular visits from St. John’s Ambulance therapy dogs.

Results to date have been positive and participants say they appreciate the non-judgmental and unconditional love of the dogs as well as the authenticity of the animals.

Staff at the organizations report that their clients enjoy visits from the therapy dogs. Many of the participants have experienced difficult circumstances and the animals seem to help some people come out of their shells.

If you have ever taken a dog for a walk you will know how easy it is to meet other people and start up conversations with strangers in the presence of your dog.

Many people will approach and initiate interaction with a dog and their owner when they would not do so in the absence of the dog.

They also provide something to talk about that takes the focus off the owner.

It seems reasonable to assume that a therapy dog might well also aide in the development of responsibility and motivate an increase in exercise.

The dog needs to be walked and walking the dog will make the exercise more interesting and also associate the exercise with meeting other people who are out walking their dogs.

Results have been consistent among youth, seniors and even for groups.

Researchers say they would like to take their work farther by expanding to other animal species such as horses.

More research is likely still needed in order to establish an overall ‘pet effect’ on health, but there is little doubt that having positive interactions with animals can be a comfort and solace.

The unconditional companionship can also do much to dispel loneliness and feelings of isolation in those who may have a hard time functioning in social situations.