Your Own Personal Canine Medical Helper

Service dogs are no longer just for the blind or hearing-impaired.

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Alzheimer's disease. Dogs can soothe the agitation so common in Alzheimer's patients and improve their social skills, too. They're often adopted by a unit or wing of a nursing home so patients can play or cuddle with the animals. "[Patients] feel like they can interact with the dog without any worry," says Mara Baun, coordinator of the doctorate nursing program at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Of more than 10 studies Baun has directed on the medical benefits of animal companions, five involved Alzheimer's patients. She recalls a man with severe Alzheimer's who bonded with a golden retriever at his nursing home; the two often played ball together in the courtyard. One day the man grew agitated, pacing the hallway, rattling locked doors to the outside and refusing to respond to staff members. "All of a sudden, the dog took him by the cuff of his shirt, led him back to his room and stayed there with him," Baun says. Patients often respond best to goldens and Labs because of their easygoing temperaments and trainability.

[My Dog May Be Good for My Health]

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Research suggests veterans with PTSD experience fewer symptoms and need less medication when paired with dogs. The canines help veterans ease back into society by sensing panic attacks before they begin, gauging the safety of surrounding areas, and jolting their handlers out of flashbacks. A noisy, crowded restaurant might make a veteran panic because he associates crowds with snipers, hidden bombs, and other dangers, for example. But he has been taught to touch his dog, and that sensation helps bring him back to the present. And he looks to his dog to determine whether his fear is realistic. "A veteran will do a body read of [his] dog to see if there's any evidence of danger in that situation—like if [its] tail is between [its] legs, or [it's] emitting a low growl," says Joan Esnayra, founder of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, a research and education group. It's instinctive, she says: "Dogs have exquisite sensory capacities. They can smell things we can't smell, see things we can't see, hear things we can't hear. Dogs are very sensitive to danger." The turning point is when the veteran believes his dog and not his initial PTSD-induced reaction. "That's a victory," says Esnayra. Some groups, like Operation Wolfhound, founded two years ago by an Army veteran, believe so strongly in the dogs' abilities that they provide dogs to veterans at no cost.

Epilepsy. Seizure-alert dogs detect slight changes in body chemistry that signal an oncoming attack and warn their handlers by whining or pawing the handler's leg to buy enough time to take antiseizure medication, reach a safe place, or call for assistance. Exactly how dogs sense oncoming seizures is unclear, but it's an instinctive ability that cannot be taught—only identified and encouraged, experts say. About 20 organizations nationwide provide seizure-alert dogs, charging recipients anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000.

[Your Dog Is Fat. And You Know What to Do]

Crisis survivors. Crisis-response dogs are trained to be patient and affectionate, look directly at people, and remain calm in chaotic, unpredictable situations. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the shootings at Virginia Tech, Hurricane Katrina, and other tragedies, HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response therapy dogs were on the scene. "We provide comfort and encouragement and help people relax, rejuvenate, and reconnect," says Amy Rideout, the nonprofit's president. This month, for example, a HOPE team spent two weeks at a California elementary school where there had been a playground shooting. "Our dogs were the bridge that helped those children retake the playground," Rideout says. "One student told us she felt really safe with Oz, who happened to be a very large dog. That steady presence made her feel comfortable, and took her focus off the bad stuff."