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The Comfort of Animals

by Margaret Cullison

Each story differs but the themes remain the same.  A woman's mate dies or leaves and she feels alone.  Children grow up and leave home, and their parents dread the cold draft of the empty nest.  Someone you love is seriously ill, in * pain and fighting the prospect of being bedridden, either at home or in a nursing facility.  Maybe you are experiencing depression and find little joy in life.

      A simple approach to meeting these challenges could be the addition of the comforting presence of an animal. Animals have had a long tradition of aiding humans;  dogs have pulled sleds, helped hunt for our food, and guarded our castles and cottages.  Cats patrolled religious temples, controlled rodent populations and were said to have mystical powers.  Horses pulled carriages and bore warriors into battle.  Stories abound of people who were saved by an animal's instinct for danger and willingness to protect.  Lost dogs and cats have walked many miles to find their human friends.  Most recently, a sheep dog left his new home in England and walked four miles, crossing busy streets and populated areas as his instinct guided him to the grave of the recently deceased farmer who had been his long-time friend.  The dog was found lying on top of the man's grave, his devotion having directed him to find his master and keep watch over him.
       For many human beings, the connection has always gone deeper than the work that animals did for them.  Anyone who has a dog knows the pleasure of coming home to his exuberant greeting.  Cat lovers can testify to the comfort of having a warm
bundle of fur curled next to them in bed on a cold night.  Children love to pet and cuddle a hamster or rabbit and watching fish swimming in a home aquarium can calm our jittery nerves.  Many have recognized the good feelings we feel in the presence of our animal friends, but most of us don't ask why.
     In Portland, Oregon, two people did, and they began to study the effects of the human-animal bond.  Over twenty years ago Michael McCulloch MD, and Leo K. Bustad DVM, Ph.D., learned that animals have a positive effect on people who are sick or disabled.  They discovered that people experienced lowered heart rates and blood pressure when interacting with animals.  Other researchers have learned that a person's physical state is a primary factor in determining  life span and that animal companionship is a factor in maintaining an optimum physical condition.  A more recent study in Australia confirmed these findings.
     Animals can be vital links to our health and sense of well being.   People address animals in a different way, speaking softly or with a high-pitched voice, even pausing to give animals time to respond. This is the way mothers talk to their babies and it has a calming effect on both the speaker and listener.  Being able to touch and be touched contributes to good health.  Stroking soft fur relaxes and calms us, relieving the stress of illness, loneliness, or depression.  A pet offers crucial talk-touch presence, and the benefits are reciprocal.  The animals thrive, too, because of the attention we give them. 
     Animal assisted activities and therapies are available for people of all ages and with many different physical and emotional challenges.  Women prison inmates are being given the opportunity to train dogs as seizure-alert companions as well as helpers to those who are wheel-chair bound.  Learning how to groom the dogs is a possible employable skill once they leave prison. 
     At the Chris Adams Girls' Center in northern California, a new program is planned for troubled teenage girls. Approximately thirty-five girls will care for puppies and kittens until they are old enough to be adopted.  With twenty-four hour supervision, the girls will take care of the animals and teach them to socialize with humans.  Often these girls come from abusive homes and may
have received little nurturing themselves.  By caring for the animals they may learn the vital dynamics of giving and receiving love, an understanding, it is hoped, that they can return to their families and friends when released.
     This innovative program is a team effort offered by the County Probation Department and the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF).  Sharon Richardson, Director of Programs at ARF says, "Animals are door openers, they bridge the gap in communication.  They're safe, and often a person will accept the touch of an animal but not the touch of another person."
     At the Sunbridge Rosewood Care Center in Pleasant Hill, California, animal visits are an anticipated weekly event.  Volunteers and their dogs come to the Center twice weekly to give the residents an opportunity to pet and talk with the animals.  Marta Garland, Director of Activities, reports that the Center's residents look forward to these visits and become more alert when interacting with the animals.  Marta says, "They make people smile.  The dogs are well behaved and, as the residents learn to trust them, a relationship develops.  It's a very positive experience."  Bitten by a dog as a child, Marta was afraid of all dogs until she became acquainted with Sheba, a dog that has been coming to the Center for five years.  Now Sheba comes to get Marta on their way to visit with the residents.



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