How Pets Help Us Heal

March 27, 2014

00:00
How Pets Help Us Heal

The March 2014 Breastcancer.org podcast features Michele Pich, a psychologist and veterinary grief counselor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Michele also has extensive experience in leading support groups for people diagnosed with cancer. Michele brought along Vivian, her certified therapy dog who has been named Therapy Dog Ambassador for two years in a row at the National Dog Show. Listen to the podcast to hear Michele discuss:

  • the physical and psychological reasons pets are so comforting
  • how the therapy animal world has expanded beyond dogs
  • Michele and Vivian's experiences helping women diagnosed with breast cancer
  • how you can arrange for a visit from a certified therapy animal

Running time: 28:51


+ Show Full Transcript

MIchele, Jamie, and Vivian

Jamie DePolo: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Breastcancer.org Podcasts. I'm Jamie DePolo. I am the senior editor here at Breastcancer.org, and I'm very, very excited today. We have some special guests. Michele Pich, who is a veterinary grief counselor at the University of Pennsylvania Ryan Vet [Hospital], and her therapy dog Vivian is also here with us. So if you hear some tags jingling or some little snuffling that's Vivian saying hello. So welcome, Michele. It's very nice to have you.

Michele Pich: Thank you. It's so great to be here.

Jamie DePolo: Now can you tell me a little bit about your background, because you do therapy dog work and then you're also the grief counselor, so how does this all fit together?

Michele Pich: So, I've actually been counseling folks for a little over 13 years. My background is in clinically psychology. I did some master's work in that. My first master's was in psychology. That got me into counseling with a lot of different populations, one of which was folks who had cancer or their family members who had cancer. I used to run a support group for people going through making the decisions of radiation or coming out of remission, or deciding to go with chemotherapy and all of the ups and downs of that, and trying to be there to help families be as supportive as possible as well. This was probably about ten years ago.

Fast forward to about 2009, my dog was diagnosed with lymphoma. We made the decision to go ahead with chemotherapy and she did fantastic, spent about two years on chemo, and during that process I started to talk to other folks in the waiting room at Penn Vet where she was being treated and realized that talking to other people in that situation, a lot of the similar emotions were involved with the people that I worked with in the prior support group that were making these decisions for themselves. In fact, many of the people I have spoken to, they themselves were cancer survivors, so it made it an additional level of difficulty in making these kind of decisions for their pets that they loved who actually were huge confidants for them getting through their own treatments. So now they felt like this was their chance to give back to their pets in the same way that their pets were able to be such an integral part of their own healing process.

From that point I started running two different support groups. A pet grief loss support group and also a group I called Cleo's Group, which was after my dog Cleopatra that had lymphoma. It was more of like a cancer support group for people whose pets were going through it.

Jamie DePolo: Okay.

Michele Pich: We've since expanded to include other terminal illnesses and other serious illnesses as well, but the majority of the clients that come through are there for their pets that have cancer. In addition to that, through my work as a veterinary grief counselor, I am lucky enough to be able to co-direct the Vet Pets Program, which is an animal assisted activities program. We do some therapy dog work. Our major partner is with the Ronald McDonald House of Philadelphia, so every Wednesday we go up and visit the kids, visit the families, visit the volunteers, and sometimes even more so than some of the kids going through treatment, their families need an enormous of support, too. That really kind of started our work with the therapy dog program.

Vivian loves it to pieces. She is so into every Wednesday. She is happy as anything going in there. In addition to that, we do some individual visits as well. Sometimes it's with families; sometimes it's with individuals through a variety of different things. She is also certified through Therapy Dogs International (TDI), so that kind of allows us to go beyond and do additional visits just as sort of an additional certification. That allows us to be able to do visits with individuals beyond the scope of what Penn Vet does with their particular organization.

Jamie DePolo: Oh, I see. Got you. Vivian is your first therapy dog, is that right?

Michele Pich: Yes.

Jamie DePolo: Okay. She apparently is doing very well. Correct me if I get the terminology wrong. She has been Therapy Dog Ambassador for the National Dog Show two years in a row?

Michele Pich: Yes. Two years in a row. In 2012 and 2013 she has been Therapy Dog Ambassador. It has been really awesome because she's been able to really put the spotlight out there on what therapy dogs do and really how amazing their work is and how healing they are. There's documentation showing that there's emotional healing, there's physical healing. She really gives people the opportunity to get their mind off of the tough stuff in life, off of treatment, off of diseases, and off of all of these stressors, and allows people to really just get to the root of that humanity and enjoy life, and to have that de-stress and focus on something other than the things that they have to focus on to actually get that chance to really focus on what they want to. People see her and they just light up, you know?

Jamie DePolo: Well she is pretty cute.

Michele Pich: Yes. If they're eight months old, eight years old, or 80 years old it really doesn't matter. She seems to have this same effect on everybody.

Jamie DePolo: Aww, that's great. It's interesting to me, too, usually when you think of or hear of therapy dogs you think of golden retrievers or Labradors, and Vivian is a pit bull.

Michele Pich: Right.

Jamie DePolo: I personally like pit bulls a lot, too, so I think it's great that she can be an ambassador for that breed as well.

Michele Pich: Absolutely, and that was one of the things that was huge about being in the National Dog Show for that and being honored in that way. It opened a lot of people's eyes to the fact that we don't have to just think about therapy dogs as one particular breed.

Jamie DePolo: Sure.

Michele Pich: You know, it's really more about the individual and about the personality of that particular dog, whether it's something that they would enjoy and that they would be suited for. Even from the very first day I met her, the woman that was in charge of training her trainers actually told me that she would be a perfect therapy dog and she hopes that whoever she goes to will give her that opportunity. At the time I had co-directed the Vet Pets Program with Penn Vet and myself did not have a therapy dog. I was just going up for it, so it seemed like a perfect match.

Jamie DePolo: That's kind of fate, wasn't it?

Michele Pich: Yes. Absolutely.

Jamie DePolo: You talked a little bit about how Vivian helps people, but given your background, do we actually know physiologically what's going on with people when they're petting a dog or a cat, or any sort of animal? What's happening, and why is that so calming?

Michele Pich: Well, it certainly can affect the cortisol levels, which are the stress hormones. It can help to regulate that. There have actually been studies out there that show being around a pet, even if it's not your own pet, being around animals allows people's heart rates to regulate, their blood pressure to decrease and regulate, and actually even has some positive effects on the immune system as well.

Jamie DePolo: Interesting.

Michele Pich: Along with the obvious emotional and psychological benefits of it, sometimes you could have the best treatment in the world but you have to be mentally strong enough to fight this battle again, as often times when people come out of remission. Sometimes getting through it the first time you have that energy to do it and then if you come out of remission and going through it that second time, you need a little bit of extra support to help you build up that energy and strength to fight again. It's a tough battle, but it's such an incredible accomplishment to be able to get through. You know, that's kind of where the therapy dogs come into play. The individual who is surviving these difficulties is used to fighting. They know the technical things they need to do. They know that they have to show up for treatments. They know how to care for themselves. They've learned all of this, but then it comes down to the emotional level that can really make or break it. So for the therapy dogs to be able to be there and be part of that process, it really just gives somebody a reprieve. It gives them that little bit of break to kind of recharge emotionally and build up that strength again and say, "Hey, I'm going to do this. I'm going to beat this."

Jamie DePolo: Okay. Very, very interesting. I know you talk a lot about dogs, and obviously Vivian is a dog, but can other animals be therapy pets as well, like birds or cats? Guinea pigs?

Michele Pich: Absolutely. There's really no restriction. Some of the therapy animal organizations do certify other types of animal as well. Even in our Vet Pets Program at Penn Vet, we have a couple of cats that are certified. There are certain restrictions and some places they can't visit due to the dander issues, but other times they can visit. I have heard of people having reptiles as therapy animals. There have been studies to show that if you have a fish tank in the house, that's also going to help with blood pressure, heart rate, and those kinds of things. It really depends on what is going to be of most benefit to that individual owner or that individual person. Even something as simple as going to an aquarium for the day can really help give you that little bit of a recharge and that sense of calm.

Jamie DePolo: Interested. Soothing. So it's not necessarily touch, because obviously you're not going to touch the fish.

Michele Pich: Touch is huge. It's a huge help, but it doesn't have to be in that direction. There are definitely times when people, whether they are afraid of dogs or cats, or maybe they have allergies and they can't have that touch aspect, it doesn't mean they totally miss out either. It just means you have to be creative and think about it in a different way. I was talking yesterday to the head of our Exotics Department at Penn, and she was telling me about a man that has a ball python. He is a PTSD veteran, and the greatest asset in his healing process has been his ball python. So that's essentially his therapy python.

Jamie DePolo: Wow. That's pretty cool.

Michele Pich: The options are really open when it comes down to it. It depends on what that individual pair is going to be, whoever is going to benefit the most.

Jamie DePolo: Wow. That's fascinating. I'm curious. So it sounds like each with each type of animal, the calming or the support would probably be pretty much the same across the species. It's not like dogs do this better than cats, or cats do this better, or pythons do this better.

Michele Pich: I think it really depends on the individual. I think, generally, we tend to think therapy dog because that's sort of been the most common. Dogs make eye contact with you. You have multiple levels of support there. You have the touch, eye contact, and snuggling -- as she is sitting on my lap right now while we're talking. There's a lot of different aspect to that. There's also the fact that dogs are very adaptive to the energy that other people put out. So sometimes if somebody is really going through something emotionally and physically, they kind of sense it, and sometimes they become a little bit more attached during that time or they become a little bit more attentive. I know when we are visiting several patients at a time, Vivian makes sure she visits each one for sure. She definitely makes sure she allocates time to each, but it seems like she finds whoever is kind of in the most need at that moment, and that's who she goes up to.

Jamie DePolo: She just knows.

Michele Pich: She just has a sense for it.

Jamie DePolo: Okay.

Michele Pich: I'm sure there are other animals that do that too, but I know that the therapy dogs are definitely notorious for being able to sort of sense things at times. They know when you put their work bandana on, they kind of know they're in that therapy dog mode.

Jamie DePolo: Okay. And kind of see the mental shift.

Michele Pich: Yes. Absolutely.

Jamie DePolo: Interesting. What kind of training does a therapy dog get and you as an owner, how do you go about doing this? I'm going to stick with dogs because you have a dog.

Michele Pich: So basically, you have to be certified as a pair, so even if your dog is certified with someone else or you're certified with a different dog, you have to individually be certified with that particular pair.

Jamie DePolo: Okay.

Michele Pich: The best place to start would actually be the Canine Good Citizen certification. That's something that even if your dog isn't going to be a therapy dog, it's still a great way to go. It's just a certain level of training. Most of the time as part of any type of test that you would need to take with your dog to make sure that they would be able to be a therapy dog with you, they would have to either pass the Canine Good Citizen test first, or sort of as a part of that test that encompasses the same thing. So that's something that people can look up online.

Jamie DePolo: It's through the American Kennel Club, the AKC, right?

Michele Pich: Yes, it is. So it's the CGC, which is the Canine Good Citizen certification. It has right online all of the different things that they need to do, which is basically they need to be able to sit, stay, leave it if there is something that you want them to drop, and they need to be able to drop it. They need to be able to be around people regardless of their age or ability level. From an infant all the way up to an elderly person, or possibly even somebody with dementia. They need to be able to handle being around somebody in a wheelchair or with crutches, someone with prosthetics, colostomy bags, or tubes. The dog really needs to be able to not be phased any of the different things that we all deal with. They kind of test them for all of that throughout just to make sure that it's going to be a good fit, because you don't want a dog trying to be a therapy dog when the dog doesn't enjoy it or if they wouldn't be good at it. There are plenty of times that you realize that a dog is just not good for a therapy dog. They're a fantastic dog. Any other dog that I've had, I've loved them to pieces and they were amazing to me, but this is the first dog that I've had that I've truly felt like she wants to be therapy dog, she has the ability to, and she's really a perfect match for it.

Jamie DePolo: Okay. Since our audience is a lot of women who've been diagnosed with breast cancer and their families and loved ones, do you have any experience specifically with that, and would you like to share that with us?

Michele Pich: Absolutely. Yes, although we've definitely visited with several people with breast cancer, plenty of times with our visits to the Ronald McDonald House, we find out that not only is the child battling the cancer, but often times the mother has a history of cancer as well. So we certainly talk about that. On a personal note, I did have somebody within my family who I was very close to that immediately, when she got the diagnosis of breast cancer, she was in her early 60s and was still a very hard-working professional, got this diagnosis, and the day that she found out and she called up, I asked her, "What can I do? Do you want me to come be there with you? Do you want me to come to treatments? Just tell me whatever I can do to help, let me know." The first thing she said was, "I want to see the dogs." So she came over, sat on the couch, and Vivian just climbed right up in her lap, laid upside down belly up, and smiled at her.

It was just such an amazing experience that I almost couldn't even speak because of the connection that happened there, and to be able to see this woman that I loved who just got this diagnosis, which for someone who was normally unshakable, she was clearly pretty scared and upset. To see her smile in such a genuine and happy way was really an incredible, incredible experience. Shortly after her first treatment of radiation she also came over and just wanted to spend time with the dogs to just be able to decompress. It was amazing to see that Vivian seemed to kind of know the areas that were sensitive on her body, too, and she adapted to that. She would lie in different areas that were going to be much more comfortable. I didn't tell her that. I didn't tell her, "Vivian, no don't lie there or lean on this breast and not the other." It was pretty amazing that she was able to sort of sense that and with her gentle nature be able to be that support and that snuggle buddy, but also being able to be sensitive to what was going on.

Jamie DePolo: That's pretty amazing. She was already a certified therapy dog when this happened?

Michele Pich: Yes, she was.

Jamie DePolo: Okay. So she was familiar with that. That's pretty incredible. I'm wondering, too, say somebody has just been diagnosed or if they're sick or going through any sort of rough patch and they don't have a pet, I know you mentioned going to the aquarium, but are there any other options that somebody could do? Can you make arrangements to have a therapy dog visit you in your home, or do you have to go someplace?

Michele Pich: Absolutely. While they certainly do events that are out and open to the public, people are certainly welcome to contact organizations directly.

Jamie DePolo: Okay.

Michele Pich: Some organizations like Therapy Dogs International or Pet Partners are two great organizations that if you contact them directly and say, "I live in this area and I'm looking for a therapy dog for myself or my loved one, and we're hoping to have one visit a month or day a week." Whatever you're looking for, you let them know, and they are able to put it out to the list. We certainly get emails all the time of, "Hey, there's somebody in your area, are you interested in visiting and how often can you do it." Sometimes it's through the facilities themselves. So if somebody is at an oncology center and getting treatment, they might find that hey, here comes a therapy dog walking through the chemo room where people are recovering. Just to be able to kind of distract them a little bit during that time. Really whatever is going to be best for that individual, so whether it's an individual home visit or a visit actually during the time of getting treatment or the time of recovering from treatment while still either inpatient or outpatient as well.

Jamie DePolo: Okay.

Michele Pich: There are a lot of options out there and generally therapy dog owners are pretty adaptive, too, so even if it's something that isn't already going on, nobody should ever be afraid to reach out. There are just so many healing properties when it comes to having animals in your life. When you are battling something like breast cancer it's amazing to have that buddy there with you.

Jamie DePolo: Sure.

Michele Pich: You truly deserve to have whatever support system is going to be helpful for you through that difficult battle to be able to be triumphant and be a survivor.

Jamie DePolo: Okay. I know some people have told us through our discussion boards and also on our Facebook page that their pets are not certified therapy pets, but just having a pet was so supportive and just like you said, gave them something else to focus on, made them smile, made them feel loved, and really helped them get through treatment.

Michele Pich: Absolutely. The other thing about pets, too, that is so fantastic is they don't care what your appearance looks like. So you know, sometimes when you're going through these difficult treatments appearances change. You might have to have surgeries. You might have a mastectomy. You might have to have different types of reconstructive surgeries. Sometimes it takes a while. You go through physical changes of your face as well. Your body is fighting this incredible battle, so it's really nice to have somebody in your life that doesn't even notice any of that and doesn't care, and no matter what you look like or how drained you may feel, or how sad, depressed, or anxious you might be, when you walk in the door that dog sees you and loves you to pieces and is not going to treat you any different whether you have hair or not. We even have a little girl at the Ronald McDonald House who met Vivian the first time when she had a full head of hair. A couple weeks back we returned, and her biggest concern was, "Do you think she's going to remember me?"

Jamie DePolo: Aww.

Michele Pich: I told her why don't you ask her? So she goes and sits down and says, "Vivian, do you remember me?" Vivian walks up to her, licks her face, rolls over belly-up, and starts snuggling with her. Within 30 seconds to a minute, she sat on the little girl's lap. I think that's your answer.

Jamie DePolo: She remembers. Yes. That reminds me, there was what I thought was a very cute commercial that showed all of these people. One man was a bouncer at a club and people were giving him a really hard time, and then there was a woman who was trying to hand out flyers on the street and people kept saying, "Go away, go away, go away." The commercial then cut, and they showed them all walking into their doors and their dogs just greeting them with this unconditional love: "You're home and I'm so happy to see you." You could just see; it was kind of the same thing. Like all the worries melted away, and they were just so happy to share that love with their pet.

Michele Pich: Absolutely. It's really incredible. That's the thing, pets are certainly the great equalizer.

Jamie DePolo: Yes. Yes. I know you said definitely email or call the therapy dog associations, but is there any sort of shortage of therapy dogs? Because I think that I read a couple stories in the paper where they were talking about, I think hospitals, and they were saying, "We would have a therapy dog in here every day if we could, but there just aren't that many of them."

Michele Pich: Yes. There is definitely a shortage. I think it's becoming more and more prevalent. That's one of the parts that I'm the most excited about with the National Dog Show having added that piece to honor the therapy dogs, because it kind of gets the word out there a little bit more that hey, this is an option and this is something that we should be thinking about more. I think it's something that in the recent years has been growing quite a bit. I think it's something that is going to continue to grow over the next decade, for sure.

Jamie DePolo: Okay. Let's see. I guess one of my last questions is if somebody out there is with an organization and says, "Oh wow, I would love to have a therapy dog come here." So, it would be the same thing. They could go online and look for the group Therapy Dogs International.

Michele Pich: Yes.

Jamie DePolo: If someone wanted a cat, are there therapy cats international? Are their groups for those?

Michele Pich: Pet Partners is one that certifies a variety. They certify cats, lizards. I've actually thought of looking into that for my leopard geckos, because they're super sweet and love to be handled. They might actually make good therapy lizards.

Jamie DePolo: Okay!

Michele Pich: They're one organization that I know of off the bat that certainly certifies other animals as well, but I think it's certainly worth doing a search and seeing out there individual places that also have their own different programs, too, that certain hospitals might have. I know there's HUP's Pups for the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Jamie DePolo: Oh, okay. So they actually have their own program.

Michele Pich: Yes. I know up in New York, David Frei, the announcer for both the National Dog Show and Westminster Dog Show, he and his wife have an organization called Angel On A Leash. I think depending on what area you're in, it is certainly worth doing a Google search for therapy animals and putting in your area and see what comes up. There's a lot more that are kind of springing up around, obviously Therapy Dogs International and Pet Partners are kind of the big ones. Even our program at Penn, which is a little bit different because it is more of a training program for the vet students who often times are able to get their dogs additional certified with Therapy Dogs International because it's a noncompeting interest.

Jamie DePolo: Sure.

Michele Pich: Even through Penn Vet, our Vet Pets Program has expanded recently, and we are looking into some partnering with Penn Life and visiting some older adults in different situations as well. Again, this is an area that's really growing. The more and more we study the human-animal bond, and we have this scientific empirical support to show that hey, this bond not only exists but it has these truly healing properties on multiple levels that we are really only starting to scratch the surface of even though there is plenty of research out there to support it. So, I think the more we do this kind of research and continue to look into and continue to report our findings with it, the more people are going to be on board with realizing that wait a minute, this bond truly can be healing and a huge asset in somebody getting through the toughest battles in their life.

Jamie DePolo: Oh, that's great. Before we go, I want to ask you to tell everybody a little bit about Vivian's background, because she came from a special training program as well. Was she in a shelter?

Michele Pich: Yes. She had been abused, neglected, emaciated, in terrible condition, and a day away from being euthanized in the shelter. They didn't know if she'd even medically survive. New Leash on Life U.S.A., a prison dog organization that currently runs out of Pennsylvania but will be expanding throughout the country, they have done some amazing work. They take animals from the shelter. They start with the ones that are on the euthanasia list, bring them into the prison, and actually have the prisoners, two prisoners for every one dog, and the dog lives right in the cell with the prisoners. They train them to do everything to pass their Canine Good Citizen test. They become more adoptable, whether they are going to be a pet in someone's home or become a therapy dog like Vivian has. They recently added a piece to try to train them to become service dogs for veterans who are coming back with PTSD. It starts from the same basic place of passing that Canine Good Citizen test, which they are able to do before they even come out of the prison. That's their job in the prison, is to spend all day every day training these dogs to behave, sit, stay, and be potty trained; all of the things they would need to be able to do in order to either be a good pet or, above and beyond, become a therapy dog. Vivian was the first one out of the program to become a therapy dog, and I think since they've had a few that have also gone in that direction.

Jamie DePolo: That's great. Vivian, you're such a good girl, you are. Well, thank you so much, Michele. Our guest today on the podcast has been Michele Pich from the University of Pennsylvania Vet School and her therapy dog Vivian. Thank you both so much. This has been a really great interview. I really appreciate you taking the time to come out.

Michele Pich: Thank you so much for having us. It's been an honor.

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