Dogs can be so much more than just furry buddies. That’s why I’m pleased to share this guest post on the all-important topic of therapy. Understanding the benefits of therapy dogs for those with fibromyalgia, chronic health challenges, and disabilities can help streamline the process.
Dogs are referred to as man’s best friends for a good reason.
Aside from their silly quirks and undeniable cuteness, our four-legged friends are probably the most loyal creatures in the entire universe. They lift our spirits when we’re down and amplify good memories when they are at our sides.
Their loyalty is what makes them excellent therapy animals, meaning they offer people multiple therapeutic benefits to help them recover from physical, mental, and psychological problems. Simply staying beside a person recovering from a disability is already a great help in itself—a dog’s presence can help calm anxiety, help regain peace, and improve the overall quality of life.
Given the impact therapy dogs can have on people suffering or recovering from physical, mental, or psychological illnesses, medical professionals are increasingly implementing therapy dog programs as a practical and cost-effective way of giving added emotional support.
How can dogs help people with fibromyalgia?
More than three million Americans develop fibromyalgia every year. This illness is characterized by several symptoms, such as muscle tenderness, chronic fatigue, mood swings, widespread pain, sleeping problems, and more. Usually, these symptoms are not severe enough that it causes chronic disability to the patient, but living with this disorder can make daily routine extremely difficult. You would usually find people with fibromyalgia less social, motivated, and productive.
While there’s no standardized treatment for fibromyalgia there are many options. The good news is there are many treatment methods available to help lessen the severity and even the likelihood of symptoms.
One treatment method is having a therapy dog by the patient’s side. Scientific studies have proven that pet therapy for fibromyalgia may be a “valuable contemporary therapy” for outpatients. In light of the study, Gianna Casini, MD, a pain researcher who worked with author Cheryl Bernstein, MD, said, “Visiting the doctor inherently is a stressful experience for most patients; this is especially significant for chronic pain patients. This can be attributed to the fact that more often than not, chronic pain patients don’t have significant improvements in their pain state from visit to visit, thus they have increased emotion and frustration, which can manifest itself in increased pain.”
What is a therapy dog?
Also known as a comfort dog, a therapy dog should not be confused with emotional support dogs and service dogs. A therapy dog lends support, comfort, and attention to patients in a facility who require sessions to deal with a physical or emotional problem. An emotional support dog is a canine that requires a prescription from a healthcare professional but needs no training or certifications. And lastly, a service dog is a trained canine that provides a specific service to patients with special needs.
The benefits of a therapy dog
Therapy dogs provide healing that medical professionals and conventional treatments cannot give. In fact, studies are suggesting that spending time with therapy dogs can lower anxiety and blood pressure.
According to the study of Dr. Gianna Casini and Dr. Cheryl Berstein, there is a lot of literature to support that “animal-related pain improvement is secondary to a reduction in stress hormones such as norepinephrine and epinephrine.” The researchers also noted that anti-stress hormones such as endorphins and oxytocin escalated following therapy dog sessions.
Interacting with a therapy dog can also help alleviate pain by improving independent or assisted movement, increasing self-esteem, boosting mood, and increasing willingness to join in physical and social activities. Since a fibromyalgia patient usually has decreased energy levels, bonding with a therapy dog can motivate him to move around, making him happier, lessening depression, and enhancing his outlook in life.
Depending on the severity of fibromyalgia and its symptoms, a patient can opt for a service dog that could help that person retrieve dropped items when their condition might be causing them the inability to move around. Another example is that when a patient feels pain when walking, a trained service dog can adapt to the patient and even open doors for him.
The downsides of a therapy dog
Although the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, it is imperative to note the threats that hiring a therapy dog posits. A few of the most significant risks include sanitation and safety. Fibromyalgia patients who are allergic to dogs may suffer from severe allergic reactions, hence exacerbating their condition.
According to Dr. Casini, “Some of our fibromyalgia patients express difficulty taking care of their own daily needs and would likely see a dog as a burden or source of anxiety rather than a therapeutic agent. This, in turn, could exacerbate their pain state.”
Before dogs become therapy agents, they are usually screened for health and behavior. Their owners and handlers should undergo training and evaluation as well to ensure safety.
Human injuries may also occur, but such cases are relatively uncommon. On the other hand, therapy dogs may suffer injury, abuse, or anxiety when mishandled. Although unusual, such cases only happen when patients become possessive of the therapy dogs.
How to visit a therapy dog?
The fibromyalgia patient’s doctor will plan, manage, and administer the therapy treatment. An expert pet handler, usually the therapy dog’s owner, will direct the tail-wagging fluff at every session and work under the doctor’s direction. More often than not, pet handlers work as volunteers. During volunteering cases, proper pet handling should be discussed within the three parties involved (doctor, patient, and handler) to ensure safety and a positive experience.
During a dog therapy session, the initial step is choosing the dog that best suits a patient’s demeanor. Before a therapy dog and its handler can participate in a therapy session, the dog should initially fulfill specific requirements, including the following:
- Physical examination to confirm its healthy state
- Obedience training course to ensure animal control
- Evaluation of the dog’s behavior and temperament
- Instructional course to teach the handler about proper interaction with patients
A dog is a man’s best friend, and sometimes, it can be the cure to some specific problems. Therefore, if you are suffering from fibromyalgia and the hardships that often come with it, don’t hesitate to ask your physician about the benefits of a therapy dog. Since therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and stress relief, they can make a difference in your struggles with both physical pain and emotional distress.
About the Author
Mike Powell is a dog enthusiast, expert, and founder of Dog Embassy. He aims to provide accessible resources on dog training, care, and nutrition.