Perhaps dogs are known as man's best friend because they're creatures that live in the moment. Dogs don't dwell on the past or worry about the future.
People seem to have a harder time with being in the moment and that's probably why dogs are such great companions because they help us focus on the now.
You can see this idea in action when you watch the therapy dogs at the UNMH Children's Psychiatric Hospital (UNM CPH). Many of the children at CPH have troubled pasts and some have uncertain futures, but when the dogs come to visit, that moment is all that matters.
Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy, has been at CPH since 2009. Recreational therapists with the CPH Recreation Therapy Department oversee the pet therapy program.
"The kid's job is to play and as recreational therapists we reach kids through play," said Katy Gallagher-Fehr, recreational therapist at CPH.
When the pet therapy program first started there were only three volunteers. Today, there are 19 volunteers and 21 therapy dogs.
From the beginning, CPH staff and volunteers have witnessed numerous situations involving the unexplainable healing powers of dogs.
"It's been a humbling experience to learn the powers that dogs bring to the therapy world, said Garry Wolfe, CPH Recreation Therapy Department supervisor. "The dogs are way more insightful in terms of what's going on inside the individual patient. They give us a window into the world of a patient's emotions that we don't always see, and that's a big deal."
The therapy dogs do a lot more than just show up and look cute. From sitting and listening, to walking and running an agility course, the dogs work hard for the patients six days a week.
CPH therapists see the dogs as an opportunity to teach the patients new skills and introduce new ideas such as learning to listen, learning to trust, responsibility, being helpful to others, loving ones self, and respect for life.
"The big thing is the dogs listen," said Gallagher-Fehr. "They don't talk back. They're going to love the kids no matter what they do or what they say, unconditionally."
The furry, four-legged therapists can't take all the credit though for the success of the program. Both Gallagher-Fehr and Wolfe agree that the volunteers, the humans who own the dogs, have made a tremendous impact as well.
One volunteer, Shirley, does more than just bring her dog, Holly, to be with the patients. Shirley loves to garden and has started bringing seeds to show the patients how to garden on their own.
"A lot of them will tell you they're just the driver, but I disagree," said Gallagher-Fehr. "The volunteers get that interaction and they get to know that they helped somebody. They build relationships with the patients and staff. They make a difference."
Gallagher-Fehr and Wolfe have plans to expand the program and reach more patients with the therapy dogs.
"It's become a huge piece of CPH," said Wolfe. "The dogs and the volunteers make being at the hospital easier for the kids who are made to come here. Very few of our kids choose to come here."
Psychiatrists and therapists at UNM and CPH have started including the therapy dogs in individual, one-on-one sessions to help open the lines of communication with patients who have suffered severe trauma. There are also plans to use the therapy dogs in the outpatient clinics.
"Just having a dog in the room for a kid who's had trauma makes it easier for that kid to talk about the trauma," said Gallagher-Fehr. "I think the animal/human connection is so important. Sometimes it's easier to build a connection with an animal, but you can take that connection and bring those skills you learned into the human world."
For more information about CPH, visit http://hospitals.unm.edu/hospitals/unmcpc.shtml.