The healing power of animals

February 21, 2007

Straits Times Interactive, Mind Your Body, 21 February 2007

Many animals from dogs and cats to horses and dolphins have played a role in the healing process.

Sigmund Freud, considered by many to be the father of modern psychology, once wrote to a friend of the sympathy his dog Jofi showed him while he was undergoing cancer treatment.It would be of no surprise to Freud that today, animals are used in therapy.

Mr Charlie Ho, the co-founder of Therapy Dogs Singapore, says that ‘dogs can do much more than us to help’.

Indeed, studies are now showing that to be true.

A study conducted in the United States at the University of California, Los Angeles, last year, showed visits by dogs to be more beneficial to patients with heart failure than visits by humans alone.

Patients who were visited by a dog and human showed a 17 per cent drop in epinephrine, a hormone produced by the body when stressed, after a 12-minute visit.

Those visited by a person alone showed only a 2 per cent drop in epinephrine levels after the 12 minutes.

Mr Ho has witnessed beneficial effects first-hand when visiting nursing homes, hospices and schools with volunteers and their dogs.

He tells the story of a lonely and depressed dementia patient who, having experienced business failure and family rejection, refused to talk to anybody.

But once they got the dog to do a few tricks the man started laughing.

Ms Kwok Yee Siang, an executive director at Bethany Methodist Nursing Home, adds that ‘some residents who won’t even talk to the person in the bed next to them will talk to the dogs’.

An unhappy woman at Peacehaven Nursing Home wept one day because she was moved to the common area to meet canine visitors.

But her ‘tears turned to joy’ when a friendly dog licked her face, says Ms Angeline Ng, leader of the Singapore Kennel Club pet therapy team for the Peacehaven Nursing Home.

Dogs aren’t the only animals that can be helpful.

At Riding For The Disabled Association of Singapore (RDA), the elderly and disabled have a chance to ride horses in a safe and secure environment.

Ms Bee Wee, the head instructor, recounts how the first word a mother heard her disabled child speak was the name of the horse: Fraggle.

And while not all riders bond as effectively with their horses, the act of riding the horse imparts benefits.

‘For a kid who can’t write an essay, to control a 2,200kg animal is a huge boost of self-confidence,’ says Ms Kathleen Weidler, a former teacher who’s been volunteering with RDA since September. ‘It’s something even their parents can’t do,’ she adds.

The same effect can be seen in mentally disabled children working with dogs, says Madam Girija Nambier, a volunteer management executive for the Asian Women’s Welfare Association educational services.

Learning how to walk the dogs boosts the child’s self-confidence, she says.

Riding a horse can also be of great help to the physically disabled by improving their core strength, muscle tone, coordination and balance, says Ms Wee.

Mrs Jodi Bonnette, a 48-year-old teacher at the Singapore American School, certainly thinks so. She says her son Zachary, a 12-year-old with Angelman’s Syndrome, a rare neuro-genetic disorder, can walk much better after having done horseback riding for a few years.

‘His posture’s better, as well as his stamina,’ she says.

Although he does physiotherapy a few times a week, she thinks that the RDA ‘has been the best programme for him’.

Learning to ride a horse can also help concentration.

Ms Wee recalls how a hyperactive autistic boy, unable to stay in one place, was sitting still on a horse by the end of the fourth session.

And if nothing else, working with animals makes people happy.

As Mr Ralph Haering, a 29-year-old RDA volunteer, puts it: ‘The children come in nervous and they leave happy.’

E-mail: shelaghm@sph.com.sg

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2 Responses to “The healing power of animals”

  1. ggwfung said

    animals provide an open, unjudging love. A dog’s tail wag or a cat bouncing towards you – it’s just sheer joy. They keep us honest.

    ggw

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