Pet therapy


Pixie is an 8-year-old, well-padded, disciplined, loving dog; a mix of Cairn Terrier and Shih-Tzu. She comes to visit us once a week for about 1 hour. It has become a ritual: the caregivers and I have chairs already arranged so that Pixie and her master can sit next to Bess, my wife—who in the haze of her dementia seems to take a few minutes to recognize her pet visitor.

We are all excited to rub Pixie’s tummy and she usually responds by putting her head on Bess’s arm or in her lap. Bess smiles and gently strokes Pixie’s back, but then she drifts off to who knows where, with eyes closed, but with her hands still on the dog. We talk to Pixie, who then responds with little yelps—the yelps bring Bess back to the present—again she rubs Pixie’s back, which seems to make Pixie happy and she snuggles closer to Bess. We have a little treat for Pixie, which she chews with excitement, then licks Bess’s arm as if to thank her. Bess goes in and out of being present, while we chatter among ourselves, keep on stroking the little dog’s back, and applaud when Bess opens her eyes and runs her hand through Pixie’s soft hair. The hour is over. Pixie is excited as we say goodbye and watch her and her master get into their car. They will be back next week.

Over the years many studies have tried to determine what the benefits of pet ownership or regular pet visits are to the elderly with mental health issues. The objectives of the various studies vary: some attempt to measure physiological changes, such as blood pressure variations related to interaction with pets, others attempt to observe behavior changes in the treatment of depression, still others hope to provide evidence of improved socialization or tangible benefits to the cognitive and mood status of cognitively impaired older persons. Virtually all studies suffer from methodological problems: small sample sizes, unspecified objectives, lack of control populations and blind study techniques, and little accounting for the cultural, educational, ethnicity, income, or other differences of the subjects in the various studies. Notwithstanding the poor quality of research, pet therapy attempts will likely continue because of the positive subjective experiences that people in general and caregivers specifically may have toward pets. I can testify to how wonderful it is to open the door and have a little ball of fur tear toward me, dancing around, licking my hand. I project my delight onto my dear wife, hoping that the physical contact or perhaps some vague memory fragment of our own beloved pets of the past might brighten her day.

Our Pixie is a therapy dog—a member of the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program. She and her volunteer master dedicate their personal time to offer the companionship of a dog. Screening for the dog and the master’s suitability, criminal record checks, references, and vaccinations are all part of the program, which originally began in 1992 in Ontario. In British Columbia today, close to 3000 St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Teams offer their volunteer services.*

Thank you, Pixie; thank you, Pixie’s volunteer master; thank you, St. John Ambulance.
—George Szasz, CM,MD.

    Additional reading:

  • Cherniack EP, Cherniack AR. The benefits of pets and animal-assisted therapy to the health of older individuals. Curr Gerontol Geritr Res. Published online 16 November 2014. pubmedcentralcanada.ca.
  • There is no connection between the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog program and the official Service Dogs in British Columbia.

This posting has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.


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