Service dogs — the critters that open doors for the mobility impaired, soothe the nerves of PTSD victims and protect autistic children from self-destructive behavior — can cost up to $20,000. The expense traces back to specialized training and years of care before a “student” dog is ready for placement. But service dogs are not the only canines with a healing touch. Many furry healers involve no special expenses beyond the investment of time and resources required of any responsible pet owner.
Even if the dog of the manor has no more tricks in its repertoire than sitting on command (most of the time), it can add years to the lives of its humans and improve the quality of those lives. Numerous studies point to the health benefits of canine-human friendships. Idly petting the family dog often reduces the blood pressure of the hypertensive and can calm the heart rate of the stressed. Canine-human friendship offers many psychological benefits. Children can gain enhanced self-esteem and improve their empathy skills by sharing the responsibilities of caring for a pet. They also have a nonjudgmental confidant in Fido. Pets help overcome the sense of isolation in people who live alone, especially the elderly, for whom the daily tasks of pet ownership provide mental exercise and a positive distraction from such problems as hypochondria and anxiety attacks.
Dogs give their humans incentive to exercise regularly. Walking Fido around the block or playing toss in the park not only keeps the dog happy and fit, but can also improve cardiovascular health, maintain weight loss and strengthen bones and muscles for Fido’s two-footed friends.
In return for such benefits, the dog owner faces minimal expenses — certainly far less than the cost of a personal trainer or a psychiatrist. He can pay back his canine friend by insuring that Fido has proper veterinary care, a good diet, adequate exercise, training and plenty of love. He can also pay it forward, by volunteering at a local animal shelter, adopting a stray, donating time, money and resources to animal rescue organizations.
Here’s a short list of animal-friendly, non-profit organizations in the Mid-Atlantic region:
Greenbrier (WV) Humane Society, www.petfinder.com/shelters/WV48.html
Human Society of Pocahontas County (WV), www.petfinder.com/shelters/WV11.html
Roanoke Valley SPCA (VA), www.rvspca.org
Rockbridge SPCA (Lexington, VA), www.rockbridgespca.net
Beagle Rescue of Southern Maryland, www.beaglemaryland.org
Southeast Llama Rescue (Luray, VA), http://southeastllamarescue.org/index.html