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Provided by Intermountain Therapy Animals
A young man interacts with a therapy dog Diva at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah.

Pets can decrease cholesterol levels, blood pressure and feelings of loneliness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But you don’t have to own the dog for him to be your best friend.

Animal-assisted therapy uses interaction with animals, most commonly dogs, as treatment to improve social, emotional and physical health, and studies from across the globe are backing up the efforts of hundreds of animal-handler teams nationwide.

Brett and Rachael Beasley have volunteered with the nonprofit organization Intermountain Therapy Animals for more than 10 years in different capacities and have witnessed the benefits of their work.

The Beasleys learned about Intermountain Therapy Animals by chance during a lunchtime newscast. Having given service in several different capacities in the organization, they are now dedicated advocates for animal-assisted therapy.

“It’s real," Brett Beasley said. "We absolutely believe in the benefits and the realities of animal therapy. We didn't know anything about it until we saw that little newscast, and we certainly didn't understand it until we actually got involved."

Lately, the Beasleys' experiences have been gaining support from researchers finding that animals can improve several aspects of human health.

Social motivators

Kathy Klotz has been the executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals since the mid-1990s. She became involved with the organization soon after she moved to Utah in 1993, at first volunteering with her Australian shepherd, Foster.

At Primary Children’s Residential Treatment Center in Salt Lake City, Klotz and Foster worked with one particular child who had been abandoned by his parents and was very unresponsive to therapy.

“When we first met him, he was just this folded-up person,” Klotz said. “He would hardly speak out loud.”

Klotz and Foster worked with the boy over the course of a year. He practiced training Foster and teaching the dog tricks. When Foster didn’t obey the boy’s soft-spoken commands, Klotz would encourage him to be more animated so Foster would understand. As the boy became more comfortable with Foster, he became more comfortable with people. At the end of a year’s worth of animal-assisted therapy, the boy performed a dog show with Foster in front of other children in the facility.

“He singlehandedly gave the whole show,” Klotz said. “He was just this whole new little person.”

Researchers in Italy published a study early this year showing improved social interaction among young people with "acute mental disorders" after animal-assisted therapy. Thirty-four children and adolescents, ages 11-17, with psychiatric diagnoses were treated with animal-assisted therapy in 45-minute weekly sessions for about three months.

According to the findings, patients showed more socialized behavior and reduced social withdrawal. They had improved school attendance and spent significantly less time in the hospital.

“Animals may represent a valid help in therapeutic contexts thanks to their ability to catalyze social interactions and to create a more relaxed environment,” according to the study.

Similar results emerged in a 2014 study of 17 nursing home residents in Germany. These residents, impacted with mild to severe dementia, were observed after spending time with both a dog and a "friendly" person versus time with only a "friendly" person.

“AAI (Animal-assisted intervention) resulted in more social interactions and positive emotional expression,” said Sandra Wesenberg, the study’s lead author and a researcher at Dresden University of Technology, as quoted by the website annalsoflongtermcare.com.

Mandy Pleshaw is a marketing and public relations coordinator for Pet Partners, the largest animal-assisted therapy registration organization in the United States. Pet Partners registers teams like the Beasleys and their Newfoundlands.

Pleshaw said stories that mean the most to her are of elderly people who are helped by visits from animals.

“I’ve heard a lot of stories where a patient may not speak or interact with the staff for weeks, months, however long that they’re there,” Pleshaw said. “And when they encounter a therapy animal, they just light up and they start communicating with staff and they start talking and telling stories.”

Klotz and Intermountain Therapy Animals have also pioneered a program they call READ, or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, that has children read to dogs, free from worry about judgment or mocking from peers. Children can practice reading out loud in a less stressful environment.

“They love that the dog doesn’t interrupt them or tell them to hurry up and doesn’t criticize their mistakes and stuff,” Klotz said.

Emotional healers

A 2014 study at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York City analyzed 37 adult cancer patients as they were visited daily by registered therapy dogs for six weeks during chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

These patients showed “increases in emotional well-being and quality of life” and were motivated to continue treatment, according to a press release.

Similarly, researchers at Purdue University have begun a study to determine the effects of therapy animals on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Working with a nonprofit organization called K9s for Warriors, the study will follow veterans and their service animals to measure changes in medications, stress, relationships, overall function and quality of life.

The study’s lead, Marguerite O’Haire, said this study will provide “pilot data” for further research in the area, according to militarytimes.com.

Rachael Beasley saw her dog help ease grief when she took him to be with some children whose mother was about to die.

“We just went into the waiting room and had all the kids just come lay on him and love on him,” she said. “They’d take each one of them back, and then they’d come back and just cry on him during the whole process.”

The family told Rachael Beasley that having the dog there helped comfort the children.

“To have all the kids laying on him, it was the sweetest,” she said. “I can still see it right now in my mind, just lying on him and crying.”

Physical soothers

Intermountain Therapy Animals works often with the University of Utah Health Care Burn Center. Klotz talked about a 2-year-old boy with burns on his feet who was afraid to try to walk again because of the pain. When a dog came to visit, he forgot his fear.

“He was immediately so riveted by the idea of that dog that he hopped down and went toddling off down the hall to go see the dog and, in the process, realized that it wasn’t going to hurt to walk,” Klotz said.

A study from 2009 measured the blood pressure, pulse, pain level and respiratory rate of 57 children in a pediatric acute care facility. One group of participants spent 15 to 20 minutes with a dog, while the control group sat quietly for 15 minutes. Pain reduction among patients in the treatment group was four times greater than in the control group.

Animal-assisted therapy volunteers in Utah have seen pain-reducing (or at least distracting) effects, which help patients recover from injury and sickness.

“In terms that therapists use, they say they’re great catalysts for patient compliance, for getting patients to do what you need them to do,” Klotz said.

Deborah Carr is the executive director of Therapy Animals of Utah, an affiliate of Pet Partners. She has been volunteering with her own pets in animal-assisted therapy since the early 1990s and said she and other volunteers have seen the physical effects on patients interacting with animals.

“It happens all the time that we’ll go into hospitals, we’ll see patients on monitors, and you can just watch the monitors drop as the physiological responses start to kick in,” Carr said. “You can see that kind of thing happening right in the hospital.”

Klotz said that while scientific support is helpful, success stories and meaningful experiences are the real motivation behind her work.