Assistance dogs are a powerful medicine that extends health care beyond hospital walls. I first brought a canine companion into my practice in 1999 after volunteering as an assistance dog puppy raiser. I saw how much assistance dogs could do to help people with disabilities, and I thought it would be a tool that could assist me in my practice.
Pandora’s helping paw
As a clinical psychologist at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center–Plano, near Dallas, Texas, I work primarily with patients who are struggling with the behavioral, psychological, or social aspects of a chronic or acute disease. My facility dog Pandora has proven to be very effective with helping facilitate the emotional and physical healing of patients suffering from physical or mental health problems. I often wonder if the work Pandora does is magic or medicine, but I believe its the power of both.
At the most simple level, Pandora can help reduce patient stress, making the patient feel more comfortable. For example, if a patient is having a difficult time talking about an unpleasant situation or experience, I can bring Pandora into the room to help the patient feel more relaxed and at ease. This calming effect then allows the patient to open up.
On another level, Pandora can distract patients from their pain. For example, after a patient has undergone surgery and is recovering, it’s typically a best practice to encourage patients to get up and move from the hospital bed. However, patients often become sedentary because their pain is too great to bear. In this situation, I can introduce Pandora to the patient to shift their focus from the pain they are experiencing to her. More times than not, the patient will feel the need to take Pandora on a walk, getting out of their hospital bed and becoming mobile again. I had one patient tell me, “The look she gave me, those big brown eyes, there was no way the pain was going to keep me in this bed. I had to take her for a walk.”
In working with highly-trained facility dogs like Pandora, I’ve seen patients experience decreases in blood pressure, lipids, pain, stress, and anxiety. They also experience positive changes that elevate mood, increase endorphins and oxytocin, and report feeling more safe and comfortable. Similar changes can occur when a person interacts with another human being, but the changes are more robust when a human interacts with a dog. Interactions with assistance dogs can cause a physical change in patients that makes them feel better, and that is pretty amazing.
One question that I have yet to answer is how a facility dog can have such an effect on a human being, but I hope to understand their healing power as time goes on.
Collaboration between Canine Companions and Baylor Scott & White Health
Baylor Scott & White Health is shaping the future of healthcare. We’re proud to be the first healthcare system in the nation to embrace a program like Canine Companions for Independence. The new Kinkeade Campus in Irving, Texas serves children, veterans and other individuals with disabilities whose independence and quality of life would benefit from an assistance dog. The campus also serves as an ongoing source of training once the dogs are paired with recipients.
Learn more about the unique partnership between Canine Companions for Independence and Baylor Scott & White Health at www.BaylorDogs.org.
Pandora is a four-year-old Labrador Golden mix born and bred in northern California.
She has the best temperament. I tell everyone, “You just need to meet her!” in order for them to fully understand her personality. She is playful, pleasing, active, caring, and all around a happy dog. She loves being around people—the more human interaction she receives, the happier she is.