Calming Canines

He wears his uniform with dignity and his hospital identification badge with pride. And as one of the IWK Health Centre’s newest employees he has been training to be on its staff since he was only four days old.

Dorado, a yellow Labrador Retriever, is one of 29 Accredited Facility Dogs working across Canada. At the IWK, a children’s hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he specializes in providing comfort and support to children, youth and their families, helping to reduce stress and trauma during very difficult times in their lives. 

The kids that Dorado helps are very much in need of a friend. He doesn’t judge them, but provides them with a safe, quiet space and loves them for who they are. His temperament and training equip him with the skills needed for just such a time. He can stay calm, even when others become distressed, he can lie quietly for a long period of time, and he does not approach a person unless he is invited to.

Doctors are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of including a dog as part of a therapy team. They know that when a patient pets a dog they see that patient’s levels of stress hormones decrease, that their breathing becomes more regulated and that their blood pressure lowers. They also have seen that petting a dog releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection. And that hormone is released not only in the patient, but the dog as well.

Fast Fact: In a K-12 school in Whippany, New Jersey, a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Cali greets the children as they arrive each day. If she finds that one of the kids is stressed the teachers are able to help that student.

Doctors may even get help from the dogs themselves when determining if a patient needs help. When the human body experiences stress it secretes a hormone called cortisol. Because of their keen sense of smell dogs such as Dorado are able to detect that cortisol on breath or sweat and know when a child is in need of comfort or help. Even if those children are too shy to ask for help from an adult. 

Diagnosis by their Noses: We as humans have about 12 million smell receptors in our noses while dogs have at least 800 million. Hound dogs like beagles and bassets have up to four billion!

Therapy dogs usually wear vests to indicate they are working but that vest is much more than a uniform. It indicates to both the dog and the people around them that they are focused on the job at hand. It is important to note that while stress is reduced for the people these dogs are there to help it is still work for the dogs.  Their high level of concentration during these times means they are in need of breaks just like anyone with a job. So when the vest comes off it is time to run and play.

Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine Summer 2018

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