When you see a dog in a store or restaurant and the dog is wearing a service vest, it's a specially trained dog to meet the needs of its owner. Most people are familiar with guide dogs for people who are visually impaired; other dogs are trained to perform a myriad of functions, such as warning parents of an impending seizure in their child or calming a person with autism. A trained dog that helps its owner with emotional issues, like PTSD, is also a service dog.
A therapy dog is not a service dog; they are not permitted in stores or restaurants. Therapy dogs are trained and certified, as are service dogs, but their mission is not to serve their owners but the community. The owner is certified too; the dog and the owner (known as the handler) are a team.
Strictly speaking, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is done by a professional therapist and is goal-directed for each individual, with measured progress. Animal-assisted activity (AAA) offers motivational opportunities to enhance quality of life, without treatment goals. But organizations that offer certification for animals and their handlers often use the term "therapy" despite the lack of rigorous goals.
After training, an evaluation, and 6 mentored, probationary animal-assisted therapy visits, my dog and I just became certified as a team. We go to prearranged visits with other teams, to nursing homes, rehab facilities, and programs for children.
Animal-assisted therapy teams also comfort people who have lost their homes in natural disasters, such as fires or hurricanes. And universities are beginning to invite therapy dog teams to their campuses during finals week, to help stressed students calm down.
Working with a dog is fun. But it also provides real psychological benefits. For more than two decades, published research has shown that blood pressure is lower and survival rates for heart attacks are longer for pet owners than non-pet owners; petting an animal is calming, and some nursing homes have introduced a resident pet, such as a rabbit, into their facilities.
Empirical evidence for the therapeutic value of animal-assisted therapy continues to grow. Nursing home patients with dementia have increased their socialization when they were visited by a therapy dog and handler. Psychiatric inpatients who are withdrawn or distressed have been shown to improve in scores on psychiatric rating scales compared to psychiatric patients who have no contact with animals. And anecdotal evidence suggests that some nonresponsive patients who were visited by therapy dog teams began smiling and communicating after these visits.
School-age children benefit from animal-assisted therapy, too. It has been shown that reading ability improves after children attend library programs, or have the dog/handler teams visit their classrooms, where they sit and "read to the dogs." The dogs do not criticize if the children trip over difficult words; the children gain confidence by petting the dogs and reading aloud, and the handlers are there to engage them and help them through difficult words in their books.
Along with improved reading competence in children and increased comfort for elder and psychiatric patients, at times the handler may be told something that the patient was afraid to tell the staff, and then healing can occur. As a psychologist, I felt I would be in a unique position to help people, with my dog, in a situation like that, and yesterday I had my opportunity.
A woman stopped me in the hallway of the nursing home and asked to pet the cute puppy. Chou Chou, my two year old briard, sat for her. The woman said she was in rehab because of an accident; she smiled and said, "I am a dog person. Can you tell?" She described her dog, who used to sit on her lap and comfort her, not long ago. And then tears came to her eyes as she told me that after she was forced to leave her home, someone took her dog to the shelter; "I worry so much about him. I think he must miss me like I miss him. What will happen to him? Maybe they will put him down. I worry so much, but I can't talk to anyone here." Now she was sobbing, and I had tears in my eyes, too.
I told her about my friends who have adopted dogs from the shelters -- wonderful dogs who went to wonderful, loving homes. The woman seemed comforted by this thought, her crying stopped; she could hang onto hope that her dog found someone new to love instead of picturing him dying. She pet my Chou Chou while she told me stories about the dog she loved, and finally a smile lifted her sadness.
There are animal-assisted therapy organizations across the country that offer training, evaluations, and certification for animals and their handlers. But many community facilities are stuck on waiting lists -- they want to start receiving animal-assisted therapy services, but there are not enough volunteers.
If you have a well-trained, gentle, loving dog or cat or rabbit (and some organizations also certify birds and horses!) that can be calm around new people of different ages and abilities, and can walk confidently past wheelchairs and walkers, why not consider volunteering as an animal-assisted therapy team?
Copyright Nancy Kalish, Ph.D.
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