Animal love works wonders

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I couldn’t live without dogs and cats in my life. Did you know that having pets could help lower blood pressure and lessen anxiety? I’ve heard that all my life, but it turns out it’s true. Doctors, research groups, mainstream schools and hospitals are in agreement: Animals make you feel better. Bring in the therapy dogs.

My dad recently called to let me know Scout, his Australian shepherd, passed his Therapy Dog International certification and had his first job at the local hospital. Scout is in the critical care wing and makes weekly visits to its patients. My dad was so excited to tell me about his experience.

“Scout was so good with the people, so gentle,” my dad said. There was one man who looked so frail and sick, I was afraid Scout would accidentally hurt him. You should have seen the turnaround of that man. The minute Scout came over, he became animated, smiling and full of energy.”

Dr. Melissa A. Nishawala, clinical director of the autism-spectrum service at the Child Study Center at New York University, said she saw a prominent and noticeable change in Milo, a young boy with autism, when therapy dogs were introduced into his treatment. “He started to give me narratives in a way he never did,” she said, adding “most of them were about the dog.”

The changes have been so profound that Milo’s mother and Dr. Nishawala have started to talk about weaning Milo from some of his medication.

“People in stress mode get into a “state of dis-ease,” in which harmful chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine can negatively affect the immune system, according to Blair Justice, Ph.D., author of “Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health.” “Studies show a link between these chemicals and plaque buildup in arteries, the red flag for heart disease.”

Recently, my neighbor Frank went into the hospital for surgery. I was so relieved (and excited) when his wife, Gloria came to tell me Frank pulled through and has a doggie visitor every day. Riley is a therapy dog that visits Cedar Sinai Medical Center on a regular basis. He was adopted from the animal shelter on Thanksgiving weekend in 2000.

His owner, Dennis Cajiili, said, “Riley loves all animals and people, especially kids.”

Frank’s stay at the hospital is so much better with these visits. He is a true animal lover and when he gets home, I plan on bringing my dog Gabby by to visit him.

Therapy dogs go almost everywhere and help all kinds of people. Hector goes into schools to help kids learn to read. He’s a survivor of Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring and is amazing with the children. Lisa Prince Fishler, founder of HeARTspeak and a photographer has met him in person.

She recalled, “This spring I photographed Hector the Pit Bull and Piggly Wiggly at an elementary school. Hector was one of Michael Vick’s dogs, and since joining [a new family], has been traveling around the country, breaking stereotypes with his smile.

“Piggly Wiggly, an elder bull, also works as a therapy dog, proudly sporting a great pit bull smile and clown wig. It was heartwarming to watch.  One could tell they knew they had an important job, though the job was simple: be themselves. Roo Yori (Hector’s dad) and Kathleen  Pierce, (Pig’s mom) taught children proper etiquette when approaching a person with a dog, and simultaneously, that pit bull dogs are not as they are portrayed in the media.”

You can teach an old dog new tricks. It is wonderful to see Hector work with the kids. They love him and he loves them right back.

Fishler said, “Hector’s signature pose is upside down in his human’s arm. He gets inverted and the lights go out and he goes totally limp. It was so cute, because though Hector is 100% relaxed and loving life, Pig was so concerned, he was like, ‘Hey, guys, S-O-S, S-O-S. Hector needs some CPR here.’”

Therapy dogs visit a large variety of facilities and locations including, assisted-living facilities, DSR (disaster stress relief), hospice, nursing homes and schools. Any dog can become a therapy dog. All they have to do is go through classes and pass the certification. So does your dog have what it takes? For more information contact Therapy Dogs International at tdi-dog.org. And if they make the cut, let me know. I’d love to photograph them in action.

Lori Fusaro has been voted the best portrait photographer by FoxTV three years in a row and is a proud member of PPA and HeARTspeak. She lives in Culver City with her husband, four cats and dog. Contact: Lori@FusaroPhotography.com, FusaroPhotography.com. Follow her on Twitter: @FusaroPhoto.

Animal love works wonders