Therapy dog shows healing is complex

"People may tell you in detail about the pain in their elbow or leg, where and how it hurts, but they may not tell you about the emotional pain they feel in their heart," says Dr. Jim Melling, a family physician who sees patients at his Langford office, at local hospitals and sometimes in their homes.

This is where Todd, a registered therapy dog, comes in. In Melling's view, the dog's deep loving looks, quiet demeanour and attention to those in need create an atmosphere that is calming for patients, paving the way for them to open up more than perhaps they would otherwise. Todd's presence perhaps sends a message that this doctor is ready to listen - a message that isn't sent if he just reaches for the ever-present prescription pad.

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"It can be difficult to give the patient the time they need to express, or even consider what is going on under the physical symptoms they are experiencing, because of time constraints for doctors," Melling explains. Sometimes the cause of one's symptoms is not as simple as it seems at first glance.

With Canada's prescription use of painkillers at an all-time high, Melling observes that emotional pain is sometimes at the root of physical discomfort and cannot be healed with painkillers.

"In our society, many people are in distress. They are anxious about their finances, their jobs, relationships and family issues. This might show up as sleep problems, anxiousness, indigestion, or even physical pain with no physical explanation," he says. He wonders if medical practitioners are listening, or just prescribing to treat the symptoms instead of addressing the real problem.

Melling believes that medications are not always the answer, and some create more problems than solutions.

For example, he says, "statin cholesterol-lowering medications can cause uncomfortable side effects that may require further medications, when it is known that a daily 60-minute walk is more effective at preventing heart attacks, and that further studies show that they are largely ineffective for women."

As Todd pads quietly into another patient exam room, he may have something to teach us about our health. So effective is his loving empathy that many patients find themselves crying when he puts his paw on their arm or nuzzles up to them. Todd himself has experienced healing. Melling found him online, and when they met, it was an instant connection.

Todd had been a cattle herder from Alberta, but not a very good one, hence he was in need of a new home. He winced and cringed whenever Melling picked up a stick to throw for him. He had no idea what play was, or how to swim. Through love and the development of their relationship, Todd now plays; he even swims. Most importantly, he brings this healing sense of love to others when he senses they need it.

Healing love is something much needed in our world. From a spiritual perspective, and experience, I see how love permeated the teachings and practice of Jesus's ministry. He understood that the suffering of mankind could be healed through this spiritual love. And generations of spiritual thinkers throughout history have found healing in the discovery of God as love.

I wonder if our public conversation about health care is somewhat one-sided - with number crunching, organizational charts and prescription pads at the top of the agenda. Meanwhile, the actual needs of both the patients in the waiting rooms and those who work in the harried health-care system remain unnoticed. Perhaps it is time for a wider look at health care that includes more than prescriptions and technology.

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Anna Bowness-Park is a Christian Science practitioner of prayer-based healing, and writes frequently on the link between spirituality and health.

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