Widespread studies suggest that a few minutes of stroking a dog prompts a release of a number of these ‘feel good’ hormones in humans, including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin.
The Mayhew Animal Charity, a London-based charity offers a pet therapy programme involving weekly visits to elderly care homes with your pet dog. Committing to this initiative with my pet dog Izy, four months in I started to question the real impact that we were making. As the majority of the residents in the home were suffering from some form of Dementia, the standard weekly greeting tended to be ‘Who are you then, who’s this little one?’ On a superficial level, we were recognised with unanimous smiles, smiles which would lift the atmosphere of an institutional room in a matter of seconds, but the chances of forming tenable connections seemed a very slight possibility. Dementia is a progressive condition. I learnt very quickly that if I was hoping to make a long-term effect with our visits, this was unlikely to happen.
On one particular visit, with Izy at my feet, one resident said to me, ‘There’s a lovely lady who comes in with her little black dog every week.’ Realising that this could only be me, I was left wondering what the point of these visits were if we weren’t recognised from one week to the next. On the way out, I passed a carer who said to me,’They love your visits you know. They talk about them all week long. Their families are really pleased as well – they always ask about the lady and the black dog.’
It dawned on me in that moment that it didn’t really matter if the results were only fleeting. The visits were in fact leaving positive impressions and providing people with lighter moments in a situation which was undeniably tough. Even if the visits weren’t to become life-changing, they were at least in a small way improving the quality of peoples’ lives.