Therapy Dogs Improve Quality of Life for Seniors and Family Caregivers

Have you ever owned a pet, stroked a dog’s fur or thrown a ball with a rambunctious dog?

If you have, you have likely experienced the joy of unconditional love only a pet can give.

Many of our senior loved ones have also felt this kinship and love for pets as they grew up and even when they were raising their own families.

Unfortunately, as seniors get older so do their pets. They may have lost them through the years or are no longer able to care for them as they need. Perhaps your senior loved one is now living in a home where a dog or cat is not allowed.

Pets provide a special bond to those who love them, even if the bond is based on their memory of the pet.

Family caregivers can help bring the love and companionship of pets to their senior loved ones through the use of therapy dogs.

Benefits for Seniors

Therapy dogs are used by many different types of facilities and organizations including senior living facilities. They bring our senior loved ones companionship, fun and even health benefits.

There have been several studies that show the multitude of benefits that therapy dogs can have on seniors they visit.

One such study was conducted by Therapy Dogs International, a nonprofit organization that trains and certifies dogs and their handlers. They surveyed staff from facilities that had a therapy dog program.

The staff reported observing an increase in a variety of factors among the seniors including:

  • Socialization
  • Verbalization
  • Alertness
  • Positive mood
  • Sparks memories, reminiscing
  • Reason to look forward
  • Reduced pain
  • Tactile – give and receive a personal touch
  • Visual stimulation
  • Decreased aggression and resistance
  • Decreased loneliness

The staff themselves reported improved morale as they witnessed their residents interacting in a positive manner with the therapy dogs. Not only did the staff get a quick break from their routine and decreased their stress but it also allowed increased communication between staff and residents.

Definitely a win-win for seniors and caregivers!

Therapy Dog Survey

Their survey found that visits from the dogs occurred in group as well as individual settings. Visits occurred weekly, monthly or twice a month.

Over 60% of the people responding to the survey reported that they wished the visits were more frequent regardless of the current schedule. Some wanted more dogs and even other types of pets like birds and cats to visit.

“Animals have long been recognized as a positive addition to the healing process. In facilities, visits from Therapy Dogs have shown an increased happiness, calmness, and overall emotional well-being. Studies have shown a decrease in blood pressure and stress levels during Therapy Dog visits. Therapy Dogs provide a break from the daily routine of illness and loneliness for residents, visitors, and staff.”

source: Therapy Dogs International

Other research found that pairing dogs with people improved the quality of life of those adults who interacted with the dogs. The benefits were found in psychological, physical and social levels with the adults.

Scientists tell us that as little as fifteen minutes spent with an animal releases chemicals in our brains that make us feel better. The chemical reaction can lower blood pressure, heart rate and relieve stress. Heart disease and stroke can be decreased, cholesterol lowered, brains stimulated and even depression can be avoided.

Specially Trained Dogs

Dogs are trained by professionals and connected with a handler who is also specially trained.

The dogs themselves have to meet certain criteria to ensure that they will be the best fit to perform the caring services required of therapy dogs.

Dogs should be at least 1 year old. Their temperaments are tested as well as how they handle certain situations, including crowds and people with adaptive equipment such as wheelchairs and walkers.

The dogs must be in good health and certified to be on an ongoing basis by a veterinarian.

Therapy dogs come in all shapes, sizes, breeds, ages and personalities.

There are also specific pet therapy programs which use only senior dogs who act as companions for seniors in facilities and other organizations. One program uses senior dogs rescued from shelters and then trained.

Future Programs for Therapy Pets

More senior living facilities and seniors they serve could benefit from the use of therapy dogs (and other pets). Both the residents and the staff will gain from the experience.

Why don’t more take advantage of this type of program?

Perhaps lack of knowledge about such a program, fear of allergies, not wanting to include in their daily schedule, or fear of the pets scaring the residents may all play a role in why facilities aren’t open to starting such a program.

Maybe they just don’t know how to connect to trained dogs and handlers who could visit their facility on a regular basis.

Family caregivers can encourage the facilities or organizations in their community to make the connection with therapy dogs working in the community for the benefit of not only their own senior loved one but others in the location.

Can you advocate to bring therapy pets into the senior center or nursing home where you know seniors would gain from their visits?

Dogs (and other pets too) add so much to their day! How can you resist?