Puppy love - therapy pooches bring peace of mind at Spanish psychiatric centre

By Amanda Calvo
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The Wider Image: Puppy love: therapy pooches bring peace of mind

Atila, a trained therapeutic greyhound used to treat patients with mental health issues and learning difficulties, falls asleep as it gets caressed by three patients at Benito Menni health facility in Elizondo, northern Spain, February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera

By Amanda Calvo

ELIZONDO, Spain (Reuters) - Tucked away in Spain's Pyrenees mountains, patients at psychiatric facility Benito Menni stretch out across floor mats and stroke greyhound puppies Atila and Argi.

Puppy love is part of the treatment for conditions such as schizophrenia.

The facility, based in a town near the border with France, uses the dogs to help patients with intellectual disabilities and mental health conditions develop social skills and a sense of autonomy.

Alongside misty views of green rolling mountains, petting sessions with the eight-month-old puppies have a calming effect serving as an emotional outlet for patients who struggle to connect with others.

Playing with those who are more active and sitting still with those who find moving a daily challenge, the dogs tailor their behaviour according to the needs of their patient.

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Unlike other centres, Atila and Argi live on the grounds and are cared for by patients. "They are in charge of the dogs 24 hours a day," said head nurse of Benito Menni Uxua Lazkanotegi. "The dogs are now part of the centre."

In an effort to promote good habits like self-control and personal hygiene, patients groom and feed their furry companions taking them for daily walks to the nearby village where the dogs are icebreakers facilitating conversation with the locals.

Centre residents who struggle to express themselves because of a range of cognitive and behavioural disabilities referred to their feelings for the dogs using words like "calmness", "companionship" and "affection".

The dogs also work with those unable to feed or walk the animals, sitting with severe dementia patients in an effort to combat isolation and depression by stimulating their senses of touch.

(Additional reporting by Susana Vera Editing by Sonya Dowsett Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)