Pet Power | VailDaily.com

Pet Power


That doggie in the window is worth more than you might think

Murphy works for Vail Pet Partners. One of his jobs involves helping students at Vail Mountain School practice reading skills. He underwent a high level of training to assist kids, but it wasn't quite the same as other teachers'. For instance, rather than mastering grammar, he had to learn to "leave it" when kids drop cookie crumbs. He also trained to place his nose exactly where it's supposed to rest while kids read.

As an 8-year-old Golden Retriever, Murphy has aided countless patients at Vail Valley Medical Center and Jack's Place by calming anxiety, decreasing blood pressure and supporting healing processes. Since March, he has motivated kids and significantly reduced their self-consciousness about reading aloud.

So far, one girl brought in an entire bag of books for Murphy, because she "didn't know which one the dog would like," says Laura Sellards, Murphy's handler. Another boy tucked the book he was reading under Murphy's chin so Murphy could see the pictures as well. Yet another boy rested his hand on Murphy's head while reading.

"He struggled with reading (otherwise), but Murphy provided a comforting and calming factor," Sellards says.

Sellards has witnessed kids who stumble over words breeze through two or three pages with Murphy by their side, and then suddenly, every word stumps them, even ones they just read a page ago. Sellards notices it has something to do with their inner critic or anxiety creeping in, because once she reminds them to hug Murphy or show him one of the pictures, they're able to read well again.

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"When children get to read to a dog or pet, the dog never corrects them or laughs at them," she says. "It gives them something to look forward to; they're so excited to read, which they weren't before (the pet program)."

Kate Drescher, a clinical psychologist who launched the program at Vail Mountain School, says over a hundred parents have signed releases for their kids to participate in the program.

"It gives them an opportunity to practice ordinary skills with confidence and get unconditional positive regard," Drescher says. "They leave quite content … There seems to be something special happening between them and the dog."

Human-animal bonds

Colorado mountain culture has naturally embraced the importance of living, playing and working with dogs; it's not uncommon to see a dog sprawled out in a chiropractor's office, retail store, or, in Sellards' case her real estate office.

"Murphy is like my wingman," Sellards says. "He goes everywhere that he legally can with me. He is just such a soothing, constant and loyal presence in my life.

"They're so much (more intuitive) than we are as humans. We always go for a hike, so if it's a normal day, he will remind me by dropping his ball, but if for some reason it's a stressful day, he just knows, and he doesn't put any additional demands on me. No matter what I do, he still loves me unconditionally. He only sees the good things I do."

And perhaps, "seeing only the good" is why dogs can have such a powerful impact on kids' — and adults' — lives.

Research behind wagging tails

Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University showed improvements in employee stress levels, as well as overall productivity and satisfaction, when dogs were allowed in the workplace. Sellards' experience with Murphy at Vail Valley Medical Center corroborates the claim.

"Their faces just light up when a dog comes in," she says, "and the effect snowballs to patients when caretakers are happier."

It's not a far stretch to believe when parents interact with pets, the "happy wagging" spills over to childrearing.

After so much anecdotal evidence, researchers are amassing more and more proof to explain the adage about man's best friend.

One study by the American Psychological Association measured oxytocin levels — a hormone with such benefits as relaxation, attachment, trust, psychological stability and empathy — before and after participants played with an unfamiliar cat or dog for 10 minutes. The results were interesting: Participants who had lived with four or more dogs in their lifetimes released more oxytocin after playing with the unknown dog (but not the cat). Many participants also demonstrated a greater trust in strangers. On the other hand, people who hadn't lived with animals didn't see an increase in oxytocin. The study concluded that oxytocin release depends on previous pet interaction.

It implies the importance of kids playing with animals early in life.

"Positive human-animal interactions have far-reaching benefits," according to the Colorado Link Project, which strives to reduce cruelty to animals.

The connections encourage cooperation, playfulness, comfort, affection and other physical, emotional and behavioral assets. Initial research indicates the human-animal bond extends to more positive human-human interactions and better overall social functioning.

Sellards personally experienced the power of therapy dogs after caretaking for family members in hospitals.

"It was the highlight of my day when the dog came in," she says.

So, when she got Murphy, she committed to giving back. When she walks into hospitals, it gives patients — both kids and adults — more energy, she says. And, at Vail Mountain School, the students always ask what Murphy's favorite book is. As it turns out, he likes them all.

"No matter what I do, he still loves me unconditionally. He only sees the good things I do."

Laura Sellards

Dogs offer unconditional, judgement-free love. So they are terrific companions for both children and adults — especially those who have a strong “inner critic” voice.

By the numbers

62%
of US households own a pet,
which equates to

72.9 million homes:

78.2 million own dogs

86.4 million own cats

16.2 million own birds

Over 97% of people agreed with the statement,
"My pet is a member of my family."

— Source: American Veterinary Association

»By Kimberly Nicoletti