As soon as Jennifer James reaches for the blue bandanas dotted with white paw prints, her dogs, Tully and Wooly, know it’s time to go to work. Both of James’s Wheaten Terriers are therapy dogs, meaning they offer comfort in a variety of settings, including health-care facilities for individuals living with cancer.
Pet therapy has proven therapeutic effects. “The Healing Power of the Human-Animal Connection,” a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Critical Care, found that pet therapy can lower blood pressure and have calming effects, reducing stress and anxiety. Therapy animals can help patients through the stress of cancer treatment, and the human-animal connection may even reduce pain, as petting an animal may trigger the release of endorphins.
James has volunteered for the Calgary-based non-profit Pet Access League Society (PALS) since 2003. Six-year-old Tully has over four years of work experience as a PALS therapy animal, and nine-year-old Wooly has worked with PALS for five and a half years. On average, Tully and Wooly volunteer about twice a month.
Whether Tully and Wooly are visiting cancer patients at the hospice at the Southwood Care Centre, at the Sage Centre, or elsewhere, their workday begins by getting ready to look the part. James brushes the dogs’ long beards and wheat-coloured coats before putting on their blue PALS bandanas and PALS-specific leashes.
Shifts are short, but the dogs work hard. For roughly 60 minutes, Tully and Wooly visit with anyone who wants to see a therapy animal. Their work can sometimes look like play, and the comfort they offer varies. The dogs might give patients kisses and licks, they might stand next to an individual’s chair so the patient can reach down to pet them, or they may just let patients cuddle them, give belly rubs and talk to them.
Yet the dogs can sense when a cancer patient needs something a little different, and one experience in particular sticks out for James.
“Tully and I were visiting at Southwood Hospice and a patient wasn’t able to reach down from her bed to pet Tully. I asked if I could put Tully on her bed, and the patient nodded her head, smiled and patted the space next to her,” says James. “Tully draped herself across the patient’s heart with her snout raised toward her face as though she needed to hear her heartbeat. The patient had one arm wrapped around Tully’s torso, and the other was stroking her head. I believe the patient was in her own little, happy world at that moment in time.”
James adds that she experiences the positive change in people’s demeanours when she visits facilities. “I get there and see the smiles and the connections people make with the dogs,” she says.