The Healing Power of Pets

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pet therapyAs a young child and now as an adult there has always been a dog in my family. My current best friend and companion is a golden retriever named Lexi, who is an integral member of our family. On Friday nights she celebrates Shabbat with us by lowering her head to receive her special blessing, tastes the challah, and patiently sits by our side as we sing the Grace after Meals. She sits by my side while I write, loves to play and interact with my children and grands, and always give me unconditional love.

Pet ownership has reached an all-time high in America, with 71 million household owning at least one pet. Almost a quarter of all dogs have their own beds, over 40 percent of Americans share a bed with their dog, and almost half of all dog owners consider their pet’s comfort when purchasing a new car. Most pet owners surveyed say they consider their pet a member of the family and that their dogs (and cats) try to make them feel better when they are unhappy or stressed out. I’m a believer too. My life is much more satisfying and less stressful due, in part, to having Lexi as a companion (In fact she is lying next to me write now as I write this piece for my blog).

In my work these days as a music therapist, and in my pastoral work for forty years as a congregational rabbi making hospital rounds, I have often seen animals brought to hospitals and nursing homes for the sole purpose of cheering up patients. Families with children have often spoken about how their pets have helped their children learn the value of caring and being responsible for the welfare of creatures. Many older people who live alone have spoken about the companionship that their pet has afforded them. I have felt the pain of their loss when an animal passes away and they mourn for the one they have lost.

A recent New York Times article by Jane Brody described studies that demonstrate how animals help patient’s stress hormones drop and endorphin levels rise. Studies of older patients with dementia have shown that depression declines after patients interact with a therapy animal. Brody describes a crying child whose tears stopped when given a chance to pet her puppy.  Based on this experience Brody signed up for therapy dog training with the Good Dog Foundation, a six week course that certifies dogs to visit patients in hospitals, nursing homes, children in schools and people in other venues that recognize the therapeutic potential of well-behaved pets.

In one of the most intriguing pet therapy programs, shelter dogs living on death row are trained by prison inmates, including convicted killers and rapists, many of whom have serious anger issues. The inmates work to socialize the dogs, teaching them to trust people and obey simple commands. In turn, the inmates’ violence and depression decreases and they gain a sense of purpose, experiencing unconditional love from the dogs in their care.

Today I met Lily, a golden retriever who was offering her therapy at a local Assisted Living facility. I watched the smiles of the residents as Lily paraded around the premises to meet with residents.  Lily is an LCC K-9 Comfort Dog at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Old Bridge New Jersey. She interacts with people at churches, schools, nursing homes, hospitals and in disaster response situations. Lily is a friend to people, allowing them to open their hearts and receive help for what is affecting them. Lily even has her own Facebook page: Facebook.com/LilyComfort Dog.

The rabbis of old wrote that while we humans like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of creation because man and woman were created on the sixth day, we should remain humble and remember that the creation of even the smallest animals preceded the creation of humans, that we are all God’s creatures and that each of us has a God-given part to play in the universe. I often think of the line from the Talmud (Sanhedrin) that reminds us that in the event of human arrogance, one can reply, “A mosquito took precedence over you.” It sure puts things into perspective!