Albert the journalist Jack Russell writes for his local newspaper. This first appeared in The Middleburg Eccentric.
For many years, an amazing black Lab named Sajen has been a fixture in Middleburg. He is a service dog who has spent his life by the side of an inspirational young woman. He even walked in the inaugural parade this year, representing Canine Companions for Independence. Dogs have heroes too, and Sajen is one of mine.
There is a difference in the terms therapy, service, or companion dog, but regardless of the type of certification, all of these animals make a better life possible for people every day. I’m devoting this column to them as my way of saying thank you. There are so many incredible souls who deserve this appreciation. Some of them, like Sajen, forever change the quality of life for one family. Others make a difference in unusual ways that are equally important.
Take, for example, the numerous veterans’ groups around the country who train dogs to be companions to wounded soldiers. The trainers of these dogs are sometimes civilians, but often they are veterans themselves. Moreover, many are veterans who, while not having a physical disability, are impaired by a mental struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). It turns out that when a soldier suffering from PTSD trains a dog to help a physically wounded warrior, everyone gets life-altering benefits. Visit the websites of Warrior Canine Connection or Paws for Purple Hearts to learn more.
There are also dogs who travel to the sites of tragedies to help survivors and their families. K-9 Comfort Dogs, for instance, has 50 dogs who are available at a moment’s notice. In recent months, these loving animals have been by the sides of traumatized people in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the Boston bombing, and the Oklahoma tornado.
Sometimes canine heroes turn up in very unlikely places. Prisons across the country adopt animals from shelters and allow inmates to train them for eventual placement in a permanent home. The programs are enormously successful because the dogs have an overwhelmingly positive impact on their incarcerated trainers, giving them a newfound purpose and a greater chance at rebuilding their lives.
Libraries and schools are embracing the power of pets too. Paws-to-Read is a program that pairs children with four-legged friends in an effort to encourage reading. The most reluctant readers are eager to dive into a book when the audience is a safe, non-judgmental, and loving pup.
And of course it’s well known that therapy dogs are a bright spot in nursing homes, physical rehabilitation facilities, and hospitals. Scientific studies show that interaction with animals can significantly reduce anxiety, relieve loneliness, stave off depression, and encourage social interaction. Just by petting a dog, people can decrease levels of stress hormones, regulate breathing, and lower blood pressure. Petting also releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with affection and bonding.
I should mention that there are lots of therapy cats too. They provide many of the same health and morale benefits to people that dogs do. In recent years, the number of therapy cats has been on the rise.
I salute all of the furry heroes who make a difference each and every day. It just goes to show that we have limitless love and power to heal … especially when people help us to unleash it!