As you have probably seen on social media, pet therapy is becoming increasingly common in care homes, hospitals, schools and even universities around the UK. Just last week the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met adorable therapy puppy, Alfie the Cockapoo, at a Lancashire hospital.
Pet therapy, sometimes called animal assisted therapy (AAT), is the interaction between a person and a trained animal and their handler, to improve their mood and wellbeing. The majority of therapy animals are dogs or cats, but Shetland ponies, alpacas and even lambs can provide pet therapy as long as they are calm and friendly and can interact with people who may not be used to being around animals.
We’re lucky here in the UK to have Pets As Therapy (PAT), a national charity that enhances the health and wellbeing of thousands of people in communities across the UK. They strive to ensure that everyone, no matter their circumstances, has access to the companionship of an animal.
We can feel all sorts of emotion when a loved one passes away; sadness, emptiness, anxiety, and grief-therapy dogs can really help bereaved people feel companionship after the loss.
This is why in America funeral therapy dogs have become pretty popular. According to a National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) survey in America, more than half of survey participants said they would either be somewhat, very or extremely interested in having a therapy dog at a funeral or memorial service. Take Norbert the Dog, for example. At just seven inches tall and fluffy as they come, he’s become world famous after having a book published about him!
The first known funeral therapy dog here in the UK is Basil the Beagle, who started his new job with a funeral home back in 2018. His owners say that Basil loves people and adores children, which makes him perfect for the job. Basil can go with people into the Chapel of Rest at the funeral home, sit with them when they’re making the funeral arrangements and even accompany them at the funeral itself. They say that 90% of their customers want Basil there at some stage of the funeral planning, and added that he also gives them something else to talk about when it seems that life has taken a complete turn.
Therapy dogs can help people open up about their feelings; people can talk to them rather than friends or family. This is especially important for grieving children who may not be comfortable talking about their feelings with adults. They can also help people nervous about attending a funeral to gain confidence.
They have the innate ability to sense our emotional needs and act on them with unconditional love, making them the perfect companion to help ease anxiety and confusion of death. One funeral director in Michigan recounted an experience at his funeral home:
“A young mother died unexpectedly, leaving several children, including a teenage daughter, behind. The daughter was sitting in our lobby, crying uncontrollably. Lola, our therapy dog, knew she needed comfort, so she climbed up on the couch and lay right next to the emotional daughter. The girl soon began stroking Lola’s soft coat and stopped crying. Lola helped ease her burden, if only for a moment.”
And there is some science to all of this. Not only do therapy dogs provide comfort, they also help improve overall mental and physical health. Petting a therapy dog increases serotonin and dopamine levels in our brain, which improves our mood by lowering stress, anxiety, and depression. Petting a therapy dog also lowers blood pressure and helps those who are feeling lonely.
Brian Hare, director of Duke University Canine Cognition Centre, says the human-canine bond goes back thousands of years. Dogs have been drawn to people since humans began to exist in settlements and are the only species not to show fear of strangers. In fact, Hare says that dogs are “actually xenophilic – they love strangers!”
Sometimes we take the loyalty of dogs for granted, but we should always remember what wonderful therapy they can bring through many of the stages, and changes, in our lives. As Mark Twain once said: “When was the last time someone was so overjoyed to see you, so brimming with love, that they literally ran to greet you?”