By: Jay Stuller
W HILE JINGLES ROUTINELY PAID VISITS TO HIS MAS-TER’S OFFICE, famed child psychologist Boris Levinson usually put the dog in another room whenever patients were expected. One day in 1962, a date to remember, however, a boy with serious social contact issues arrived early for his scheduled appointment. For nearly a month , Dr. Levinson had been unable to coax the withdrawn child into speech.
However, with a wagging tail, bright eyes, and a juicy lick to the face, “Dr.” jingles
suddenly had the patient’s complete attention. In fact, the boy even spoke to the dog. One can only guess if Jingles was given a few slices of well-deserved filet mignon that evening. We do know this engaging encounter started Levinson down a path of research, during which he coined the term “pet therapy” and thus began a redefinition of the relationship between humans and many kinds of animals, which continues to evolve even to this day, April 2006. (44 years that is)
In the summer of 2004, for recent example, five-year-old Riley Pitz of Colfax, California, had worn his parents’ nerves down into screaming nubs. Afflicted with autism, Riley had trouble communicating, and in an over-stimulating environment, he would grow frightened and run ----- potentially into crowds and towards traffic. His mother and father often drew cruel stares from individuals who seemed to imply that they couldn’t control their unruly son. His parents, however, eventually learned that a well-trained “service dog:” might not onl break through the cocoon that often is autism, but protect Riley from his own autism.
The nearby Auburn Kiwanis club, several businesses, and other philanthropic organizations kicked-in funds for a two-year-old golden retriever named “Lady,” whose US 10,000 price tag makes her worth almost as much as an entire breed category at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Lady also required thousands of dollars in additional training to work specifically with Riley. But today, the family can ledave home for walks or shopping trips, and with Riley tethered to the green-vested Lady----a clear signal to judgmental observers that the boy has very special needs—the much calmer child couldn’t run away even if he wanted to.
Though guide dogs have helped the blind for a long while, service dogs such as Lady now assist the deaf, children who have emotional problems, and people confined to wheel-chairs. What’s more, over the last decades, scientists, physicans, psycho-therapists, and geriatric-care specialists are increasingly viewing animals---and their impact on human health----in several new dimensions, from lowering blood pressure to promoting emotional well-being, all manner of pets----from tropical fish to cats, dogs, pigs, horses, and even snakes, oh my----apparently have a magnetism that previously was sensed, but it now being quantified.
Very recent genetic research strongly suggests that all of today’s dogs are descendents of just a handful of wolves that were domesticated bu human beings living in or near China, probably less than 15,000 years ago. Their unique utility in hunting and sensitivity to noise and motion in the dark night made them excellent helpers, protectors, and companions. In a trade off, humans handed over food, scratches behind the ears and rubbed tummies. Wherever humans lived or spread thereafter, from Africa to post-Ice Age Europe, canines followed. (Despite the shared ancient genetics, intensive breeding to bring forth the most desired characteristics —from smarts in canines that herd sheep, power in those that-protect, and the small and very convenient size or lap dogs-----is why breeds are so very different.)
T here’s no doubt a pet can immeasurably enrich a child’s life. The saga of TV’s Lassie and Timmy is not part of popular mythology by accident, and love affairs between children and animals, not only are real, but impart a number of valuable intangible life lessons . Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, observed that for most people in an urbanized society, pets are “the most important----if not the only remaining----contact with living nature.”
Though there’s no specific known age when children are best suited for pets, a variety of behavioral characteristics in the animal, the child, and family structure might dictate that a fish or turtle would be more appropriate :”starter pet.” If a dog or cat already isn’t in a family when a child arrives, therapists and child development specialists recommend waiting until the youngster is at least three years old, and perhaps even six, simply children don’t always handle things gently, and dogs respond with bites and cats with scratches. In any event, with their inherent genetic time limits, creatures such as fish and gerbils also teach early lessons about life and death.
Rarely----despite earnest youthful pledges, promises, and parental delusions that an animal will develop an extraordinarily early sense of duty and responsibility----will a child feed an animal on a daily basis and clean up a litter box.
In any event, spurred on by the initial work of Boris Levinson, behavioral scientists began noticing in the late 1970s and early 1980s that preschoolers who had pets showed greater empathy, verbal skills, sociability, and confidence than petless counterparts. Such children also develop an earlier grasp of nonverbal communications. Meanwhile, one of the more important structural events around these emerging theories and observations was in 1977 formation of the Delta Foundation in Portland, Oregon.
“At the time, pets were considered luxury or throwaway items, and not of central importance to individual health and well-being,” explains Michelle Cobey, who provides information and resources support for what’s now called the Delta Society, and which is headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. “The early years were focused on funding the first credible research on why animals are important to the general population and specifically how they affect health and well-being.”
The society has a goal of “improving human health through service and therapy animals,” while expanding an “awareness of the positive effect animals can have on human health and development.” Research into the effects of how animals can change the lives of the ill and disabled was followed by the development of educational materials to apply the scientific work to real life. With some 8,000 volunteer members, the Delta Society is perhaps the leading international resource for information on the human-anmimal bond.
What’s more, the society promotes leading-edge research to both, the media and health and human service organizations.
“Perhaps the most important thing the society has done came in the 1990s, when it developed its Standards of Practice in Animal-Assisted Activities and Animal Assisted Therapy” explains Cobey. Including guidelines on infection control, the training of animals and volunteers, treatment plans, and other administration information, this was the first of several standards-based training programs. “We also register therapy animals.” Adds Cobey. While it’s mostly dogs and cats, we do have birds, horses and even one cow.
Stories of autistic children and pets are among the most dramatic in the entire phenomenon of the animal bond. In a paper presented at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, a pair of psychology professors from the University of Warwick in England, approached the issue with skepticism . They considered that families desperate to see some kind of normal behavior in an autistic child were giving undue credit to a youngster who is only responding to an animal demanding attention . But after a series of interviews, the two concluded that “all subjects displayed
behaviors toward their pet that they rarely, if ever, displayed toward human companions.”
Indeed, despite strong dislike of being touched or hugged by humans, autistic children apparently enjoy the tactile touch of an animal . “Greater sensitivity toward the needs and feelings of the animal was also apparent, along with a lack of anger and aggression,” their paper noted. Simply put, these children related better to animals
Animals also can apparently bring out better performance in children who are struggling with reading. “There’s really only one small study to back this scientifically,” says the Delta Society’s Cobey, “but there are several programs where children read aloud to dogs, cats, and even a horse. From doing that, instead of reading aloud to adults or other children, they had greatly improved reading scores and much more self-confidence.”
Therapy dogs, cats, and even birds are trained to interact with people who require long-term hospitalization or who are institutional residents, particularly the elderly. While there are a growing number of organizations through which volunteers bring pets to nursing home and senior citizen residences, one in the Canadian province of British Columbia, called BC Pets & Friends, makes routine visits to the Kiwanis Care Home in North Vancouver.
“When the people from BC Pets & Friends come to visit, it is the highlight of the day.” says Carol Fitzpatrick, the recreation coordinator at the Kiwanis facility. “Some of the residents from our special care unit have very lonely lives, but when the pets arrive, they brighten up with smiles and love for the animals.
T HERE A NUMBER OF STUDIES THAT INDICATE PETS ARE good for an adult’s health simply because having one around apparently lowers blood pressure. Others question whether this is true. In a Medical Journal of Australia editorial, Bruce Headey, an associate professor of applied economic and social research at the University of Melbourne, says that “we can be fairly confident that pets do confer health benefits, but we do not know exactly how.”
As Headey pointed out, social scientists ask tough questions, such as: Was it at all possible that people that were healthy and happy in the first place tended to acquire pets, rather than that having a pet caused better health?” Perhaps. But evidence in favor of the pets is piling up.
For example, one recent study followed the fate of coronary care patients, 53 of whom owned pets and 39 of whom did not. At the end of the year, 11 of the petless patients had died. Fifty pet owners were still living. And at the University of California-Los Angeles, a controlled study of the effects of pet therapy on critically ill heart patients found that anxiety in those patients was reduced more than twice as much when visited by a person and a dog, versus patients visited only by the human.
Moreover, it’s clear that assistance animals can enhance the quality of life for those who have disabilities, a cause that has drawn support from a number of Kiwanis-family clubs. The Tokoroa, New Zealand, Kiwanis club, for example , helped build a facility in which hearing-assistance dogs are trained. An annual Festival of Arts, put on by the La Jolla, California Kiwanis club raises money for the Canine Companions for Independence organization, as well as another service dog program in the San Diego area. And in Michigan, the Plymouth-Canton Breakfast Kiwanis club sponsors a “Tails and Trails Dog Walk” fundraiser to support rescue dog training. Primarily German shepards, Belgian malinois, and golden retrievers, these dogs are trained to search for humans after a disaster, or to find a person lost in a wilderness area.
The latter is rather fitting, given that humans and what evolved into domesticated dogs first came into contact in what was a very cold prehistoric wilderness. As the wolves edged closer to the human campfire in the night, shedding fears while giving and gaining trust, pre-civilization man and beast began forming a bond. Who would have guessed that 15,000 years later, this would remain one of the most helpful and healthy relationships ever known to humankind!
April 2006. (Pgs. 43-46 )
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