En español | Pausing at the door to the hospital room, volunteer Mimi Weinstein was about to ask whether the patient inside wanted a visit when she noticed the woman was crying. "Are you all right?" Weinstein asked. "I can always come back later."
"No, no," the woman responded, inviting her in. "I'm just sad."
So Weinstein, 52, moved toward the bed. And with her went her dog, Tickles, 10 1/2. The composed, good-natured boxer began licking the patient's hand. She laughed.
She was still laughing when Weinstein and Tickles left. "There's no other treatment like that," Weinstein says, "where you can go from crying to laughing in a nanosecond."
Which is why Weinstein and Tickles visit patients at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon, N.H., as often as three days a week. The sprawling facility keeps about a dozen dog-and-owner teams in its rotation of 600 volunteers — including smaller dogs, several golden retrievers, and a newly enlisted Great Dane. The volunteer Hug a Hound teams are a hit.
"Anything you can do to help a human being be happier is better for health," says Erin McMahon-Farnum, a registered nurse and services coordinator at the hospital.
Weinstein's own deeply personal experience of how dogs interact with the very ill inspired her visits to DHMC with Tickles. Her daughter, Brianna, was diagnosed as a toddler with leukemia, and died 13 years ago, at age 12.
"Throughout her treatment," Weinstein recalls, "our dog was a steward of affection and made Brianna feel good, with no risks or side effects. When she was in treatment, she couldn't have friends over or go out in public or go grocery shopping, but at the end of a treatment day, that dog would hold court at her feet. And I thought this was incredible, that the dog sensed something invisible that Brianna needed."
Proof of benefits
Volunteer teams of pets and owners are finding new opportunities to help. In schools and libraries, for example, dogs turn out to be especially good listeners for children with reading problems. Pets and their human partners also engage in more intensive therapeutic work with stroke patients, addicts, children with autism and psychiatric patients.
Over the last three decades, researchers have documented the physiological benefits that interaction with animals — and dogs in particular — can bring. They have found that petting a friendly dog can slow heart rate, relax muscles and even lower the level of stress hormones in the bloodstream.
"If we put you on Prozac it'll take six weeks to get the maximal effect; a dog takes two to three minutes," says Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of The Modern Dog. "That's good medicine."
Many types of domesticated animals are helping. The Delta Society, one of several national groups that certify pet-human volunteer partnerships and promote "animal-assisted activities," has cats, birds, horses, even llamas among its 10,000 volunteer teams.
"These other animals can bring an extra spark because it's a little more unusual," says JoAnn Turnbull, the Delta Society's marketing director. "Taking a cat to an assisted living center — there will be people there who are more cat people than dog people. Or seeing a llama walk in — it definitely sparks new conversation."
How to get involved
Volunteering with your pet requires more effort than simply showing up. The dogs and owners at DHMC, for instance, have to be certified by Therapy Dogs International (TDI). Certification means that a dog not only has been trained in the basics, but also is temperamentally suited to meeting strangers and remaining calm in a setting filled with bustle, bright lights, strange noises and the occasional tense situation. Moreover, both the Delta Society and TDI require that pets be cleaned and groomed no more than 24 hours before a visit, whether it's to a hospital, nursing home, school or library.
Groups that certify volunteer teams and promote volunteering include the Delta Society, Therapy Dogs International, and the Foundation for Pet-Provided Therapy, which runs a Love on a Leash program. All provide training and certification information on their websites and can steer anyone interested to local institutions seeking pet-owner volunteers.
Rewards for you and your pet
Why do it? Both pets and owners benefit, says Turnbull. "We hear it over and over: It actually makes the bond even closer between you and your pet when you do this work. You're working together as a team, and there's that sense of pride — you take your dog or pet out and meet someone and you see how that can change a life."
Mimi Weinstein, too, finds that the benefits run both ways. "There's an ability for a dog to make an instant connection that for me and you might be inappropriate," she says. "If we'd just met and I licked your hand, well…. So Tickles is my passport to meeting very fine people. Some of the patients are in dire circumstances, but they're really gracious, and I say to myself, 'If I were in that bad shape, I don't know that I'd be that gracious.'
"It's very spiritual — [animals are] filled with grace, and I feel transformed by it."
Rob Gurwitt lives in Norwich, Vt.