Canine Caregivers

Therapy dogs and other animals make emotional connections with cancer patients, decreasing stress and boosting mood.

Dogs and humans have been companions for centuries, their bond a spectacle and the focus of countless studies, books, and movies. In more recent decades, canine interaction has garnered therapeutic acclaim and found its way into various streams of medicine and health care. Through wordless affection and endless tail wags, dogs can light the way for people living with cancer.

Four-legged therapist

Tallulah is nine and has been a therapist for four years. Trained and certified in her craft, the labradoodle works for Alberta Health Services three days a week, providing animal-assisted therapy in partnership with her owner, Martina Quinn, a registered social worker and certified animal therapist. The pair specializes in psychological therapy for women living with cancer and their families.

“When clients come in with the dog some will burst into tears when they look at her—it’s the release they need. Some spend three or four minutes just petting her or holding her on their lap, and there is this connection and this unconditional regard,” says Quinn. “What Tallulah does in those first few minutes can sometimes take me several sessions to do without her.”

In Quinn’s experience, dogs can make a profound and measurable contribution to helping people. “Scientifically, there are lots of studies that show that factors like blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety, and depression are reduced when there is contact with a dog.”

Specifically, she cites a 2004 study done in a pediatric oncology ward in Quebec City. “Each [sick] child got a dog for one day. The impact was amazing. Mainly, the kids were a lot less anxious and felt much more safe, secure, and confident. This made it easier for the nurses to accomplish the treatments—they had far less struggles with the kids. The flip side is that the nurses liked coming to work much more. It made their jobs more pleasant.”

Back to Tallulah and her work in Calgary, Quinn cannot say enough about the effectiveness and competence of her four-legged partner. “She makes an emotional connection, brings stress levels down, and anxiety goes away; [the clients] know she’s there for them—in a very quiet way.”

Dog bless you

That’s the closing sentiment on Jenn Birchall’s emails, and a shortened version punctuates her licence plate. According to Birchall, “There’s nothing like pet therapy to lighten your heart, bring a smile to your face, get you out of the house, and make you feel better.”

Birchall was a communications professional, avid cyclist, and golfer in her early forties when she was diagnosed with stage lV breast cancer. In the months leading up to diagnosis, Birchall and her husband had lost their two beloved dogs, Jack and Peyto. Birchall was so distraught over their deaths that she couldn’t imagine replacing them. Then came the startling news that she was sick.

“A colleague’s sister lent us Riley, her black lab, for pet therapy,” says Birchall. “He stayed with us for two months and it made everything feel better.” So much so that the pair decided to invite ongoing pet therapy into their lives. Through subsequent cancer treatments, they offered to board dogs for friends, so they could get their daily dose of canine therapy.

Today, Birchall is on long-term disability and still in the thick of her cancer journey. Aside from the tireless devotion of her husband, she says it’s the dogs that keep her going. “We look after 23 different dogs during the year. We try to have at least one dog here at all times.” Asked what they charge, she blinks in astonishment. “We don’t charge—the dogs are our therapy.”

Guiding light

A weekly visitor at the Birchalls’ dog-boarding refuge is Maddox, a yellow lab and former guide dog owned by cancer survivor Pattie Ghent. Ghent and Birchall met through a guide dog program, and when Birchall became sick, Ghent offered a joint-custody arrangement—fully attuned to the medicating effects of dog time.

“I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in 2005,” she says. “I had to have surgery within three weeks, and during the surgery I had a bad reaction to the anesthetic, went into a coma, and almost died.” Then a practising psychologist and teacher, Ghent was in the midst of a difficult divorce and preoccupied with launching her two young adult kids.

“Life as I knew it just ended overnight,” she explains. Two years later, still struggling to rebuild her life and suffering from fatigue and brain fog, commonly associated with cancer treatment, Ghent was introduced to a dog-fostering program that involves training lab puppies on their way to becoming guide dogs. Immediately upon the arrival of her first pup, she experienced measurable improvements.

“The dog was 24-hour therapy for me. Physical therapy, brain interaction, emotional boost; he made me laugh all the time,” she says, adding that instantly she had to move more and focus on something other than her situation. “I had to watch his eyes and anticipate what he might do before he did it. This made me far more alert than I had been, and it made me want to challenge myself more, see what else the body could do.”

Today, Ghent is on the path to wellness and in the midst of training her fourth guide dog. A member of Wellspring Calgary, a programs and resource centre for people living with cancer, Ghent brings her dog to Wellspring when she volunteers as a peer support member, and it never fails to thrill her—the effect the dog has on people coming through the front door.

“It’s incredible, the pup just has to be sitting there being a dog, and just the sight of her makes everyone feel better,” she says. “They take one look at her and their faces light up … the stress just melts away.”

Therapy dogs and beyond

Interested in learning more about canine caregivers? To find an organization that trains therapy dogs in your area, check out canadasguidetodogs.com/dogjobs.htm.

While dogs account for the largest percentage of animals featured in studies of animal-assisted therapy, numerous other species are also known to provide therapeutic benefits. These include

  • cats
  • horses
  • rabbits
  • birds
  • dolphins

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