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Dr. Cara Barker

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When 'Going to the Dogs' Is Good for Your Health: An Important Adjunct to Healthcare Reform

Posted: 03/24/10 10:26 AM ET

One of our favorite national sports seems to be an obsession around the '"who's right and who's wrong" game. Not only does such a pasttime burn, rather than build bridges, but it takes us further and further away from what appears to increase our relationship with healing and health. It's so easy to get distracted.

Fortunately, there are those amongst us who are highly focused. Rather than concerning themselves with the need to win a popularity contest, people like Kate Franklin, who directs Sarasota's Humane Society, is joining with increasing numbers to create therapeutic actions that bring "man's best friend" together with those who are ailing. Quipped Franklin: "With five people in a room, and one is hurting, the animal will go to the sick person." Around the country dogs are being welcomed, little by little, into hospitals and housing for the elderly, alike, as adjuncts to healing. You can take the person out of their home, but you cannot take the pet out of their heart.

Of course, if you've ever had the joy of cohabiting with a dog, you will not be surprised by Franklin's words. Our family recalls a time eight years ago, when our dog, Rosie Bell, and our daughter's cat, Chelsea, took "shifts" in tending to my husband's post-operative wound on his right foot. After his bunion surgery, both animals were attracted to his "owie," and administered copious amounts of spittle to the site. With Ed's background as a pathologist, and mine in professional healthcare as well, we noted the amazing rate of recovery which ensued. Before you get ill with a big "eeeeeeeeeeeuh", hold on a minute. Interestingly enough, cross-culturally, it is well known that healing rituals have been symbolically linked with saliva. Although our pets could not read, they dipped into some mysterious well of instinctual knowing, and did the healing thing. Maybe you've experienced something similar? All I know is that if our dog had been holding a sign to help us through that episode, it might have said something like:

"Slow down, Pay attention, Enjoy Healing from Unexpected Places."

It should be said that neither Franklin, nor Manatee Memorial Hospital, and Sarasota Memorial Hospital are advocating a "laying on of tongue," or ending the role of clinicians. What they are doing, however, is offering programs which bring well-groomed dogs into healthcare settings. In other words, they are opening their minds, and taking a risk. Despite resistance, and in Sarasota Memorial's case, a temporary work slow down due to the retirement of some of their aging canine assistants, there are those, like Doctor's Hospital of Sarasota that are moving in the direction of expanding these services. For example, Sarasota Memorial is "amping" up to incorporate our furry friends in the care of children, cancer patients, and rehabilitation. All these efforts are accompanied by an effort for more research, by such distinguished heavy hitters like the National Institutes of Health. If you know of such a program, contact Therapy Dogs International, a group which is one of the largest dog training organizations. At present, they are gathering relevant data to support this movement. According to Anna Scott, who's done impressive journalistic research on the subject, "... (the) Delta Society, another national nonprofit, has tripled in the last five years, and hospitals are believed to be one of the main drivers of the increase, according to a director, JoAnn Turnbull..."

Too often, healing institutions have ignored the wisdom and resources that are in our home. Perhaps this is why so many patients long to "go home." Up to now, the assumption is that patients wish to return to familiar surroundings, and this can be so. However, what may be just as true, is that our family, friends, and even ourselves, when ill, appreciate that healing comes best when we can re-identify with who we are that is much more expansive than a diagnostic code or untoward circumstance. We are not a malady. We are not a condition. We are pretty hot stuff in the eyes of our pets. At home, I have a cross-stitched pillow that reads:

"My goal in life is to be the person my dog thinks I am."

Who is this? It just might be that our dogs see beyond our diagnoses, insurance plans, neuroses, obsessions, compulsions and fear--seeing deeply into the essential core Life Substance that makes you who you are. The dog sees you! Our dogs have a way of "stepping into" our lives, and hearts, in unspeakably touching ways. These past few months, since December 22nd, when her health required that we "put down" our long-time furrier friend, Rosie, have brought many, many reminders of just how healing our relationship with our pets are. At the end of the day, when Rosie would return from work with my husband, her Wheaton Terrier self pranced down the hallway, a very happy camper to be home, a continuing servant modeling unconditional love. No small wonder that the dog is called "man's best friend." They know how to befriend us when we've forgotten to befriend ourselves. They knew how to be completely present long before Ram Dass wrote Be Here Now, or Eckert Tolle penned his best sellers! Perhaps the genius of these authors is that they've placed their focus on what matters: being fully present to the Present moment in the name of love. But, then, our dogs have known this forever. With this in mind, let's consider how we might gain some tips from our dogs when someone we love is suffering. When in doubt, I ask myself: 'What would Rosie do?' It helps!

3 Healing Guidelines Our Dogs Model:

1. D: Dogs Disarm, Daring to Delight, Delivering Affection

2. O: (dogs) Own their Omnipresent Obedience to Who They Are,
Offering Old-fashioned Ointment: unconditional love

3. G: (dogs) Grace us with Gratitude and Generous Gifts with Gusto, and
Gentleness

Carl Jung, the noted Swiss psychiatrist who offered a new paradigm for healing, once said: "Animals are messengers from God. They are completely themselves." Amen, Dr. Jung. Our dogs just might be the best medicine for what ails us!

What pet experiences have you had that have helped you feel better? What have you learned from your dog? If your dog were holding a sign for you to read, what would the sign say? I'm listening!

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