Updated: Jul 28, 2020
The vast range of service activities dogs perform, such as companion animals for autistic children, reading programs where children improve their abilities through reading to dogs, and a variety of emotional support and therapeutic programs are just a few of the applications of working with animals in therapeutic contexts.
The relatively new fields of Animal Assisted Therapy have many applications in hospitals, hospices, schools, and even in military combat operations. Search and Rescue dogs, bomb detection dogs, disaster relief dogs, assist humans in the most dangerous situations. Companion and emotional support dogs are turning out to be one of the more effective treatment interventions for those with PTSD. Having a companion animal is saving the lives of many veterans who were at risk of suicide.
Animal Therapy Visits for Children in Hospitals
This video below shows how much benefit visits from animals can provide for children in serious medical conditions. With the presence of the dogs, the children do much better, and therapy animals can be a real asset to any treatment program.
Almost any type of animal can provide therapeutic benefits to a human – if the bond is rich enough, and the human feels love for that animal. However, animals that are specially trained and certified to become therapy animals for others must qualify with a variety of criteria that make them ideally suited to the job. These animals may visit hospitals, hospices, libraries, schools, or assist after major crises, such as a school shooting. In another blog, I describe the work of therapy animals and the criteria used to evaluate them.
The video below tells the story of Nala, a rescue teacup poodle who trained herself to make her own rounds in a nursing home. It is heartwarming to see the good work she can do.
Animal Assisted Visitations – Animal Assisted Activity (AAA)
In Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) visits, a trained therapy dog, horse, (or another animal) and their handler may make rounds, or visits interacting with several individuals. In AAA, there is not a specific agenda. The interaction, which may be a few minutes, or an hour or so, is very much determined by the connection between the animal and the human. The human may choose to pet or talk to the animal, groom, or give a treat, or interact in any number of unplanned ways. The human and the animal find their own way and seem to nourish each other. Other than the handler maintaining proper animal behavior guidelines, there is a spontaneity that grows out of the mutual interest of the human and the visiting therapy animal.
Animals Can Help Us Heal Faster
Dr. Erika Friedmann discusses in her paper on Animal Companions and one-year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit, those with pets had a significantly higher survival rate: “A broad range of investigations have found that animal-human interactions reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness as they enhance social support and general well-being.”
Even if you don't live with a dog, interactions with therapy animals, can assist in recreation, reduce isolation, and bring joy to many people’s lives. When a dog is trained to do this for a variety of people, besides their owner, he or she can perform services in either Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) or Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT).
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)
In Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) sessions, there is a treatment plan. Notes of progress are recorded, a therapist is present and is guiding the sessions which have a purpose, such as increasing mobility, increased verbal expression, more engagement, and numerous other possible benefits. It is noted that patients, such as soldiers with PTSD, will talk twice as much if a dog is present. Gifted therapy dogs seem to know exactly what each patient needs and will respond with very personalized attention.
In another blog, I go into the details of what makes a dog a good candidate for becoming a visiting therapy dog. The specific criteria, such as the Canine Good Citizenship Test, and Pet Partners Evaluation, or the Alliance For Therapy Dogs process, will be discussed in detail. Many of the best therapy dogs were rescued from shelters and often had difficult pasts, which is in itself an inspiration.
Here is a wonderful story about an abused puppy and an autistic boy and how they changed each other's lives.
And here is a video that I made about the Human-Animal Bond Program at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. It has such a beneficial impact on patients and staff and helps reduce stress and compassion fatigue.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection