Animal Assisted Therapy

Many people are familiar with the idea of pet therapy, or “animal assisted activities.”  Less familiar is the practice of “Animal Assisted Therapy.”  Animal assisted activities generally refer to pet visits in hospitals and residential care facilities, while Animal Assisted Therapy is a much more focused use of a pet to help in the treatment program of a particular patient.
Animal Assisted Therapy usually has specific and measurable objectives.  It’s part of a carefully designed treatment program that matches one animal to one patient.

A “therapy dog” and his trained handler work with a medical professional to help a patient who may have a severe mental and/or physical disability.  The patient is encouraged to interact with the therapy dog.

This interaction is increased gradually.  In the beginning the patient may only observe the dog or be encouraged to touch him.  Later the patient may be confident enough to brush the dog or put the dog’s collar on, or even to walk the dog.  The medical professionals will maintain progress records during treatment.

Dogs are ideal participants in this Animal Assisted Therapy.  They are nonjudgmental, they do not pressure the patient, and they are very patient.  They are also very empathetic.  The patient can also feel useful by grooming and walking the dog, which can be an important part of patient recovery.  Therapeutic interactions between dogs and patients have been shown to exist in studies.

Animal assisted activities, or pet visits with therapy dogs, are less formal in nature.  Their benefits may vary depending on the needs and conditions of the patients participating.  There is no formal treatment plan or schedule involved and they generally are not set up for one-to-one visits between patient and pet.

These visits usually take place in hospital settings or assisted living homes or in nursing homes.  They change the routine of the residents and cheer people up.  These visits can be very beneficial, however, appealing to people who may have shut themselves off from others.

Pets can stir emotions that people may not have acknowledged.  There are examples of patients who have not spoken in over a year who have begun speaking to visiting dogs.

Many institutions are continuing the idea of pet therapy with a “resident pet.”  A resident pet is a cat or dog that becomes a permanent resident of a facility and has free run of the place.  Each resident has an owner’s interest in the animal and can look forward to assisting in the animal’s care.  In some places a full course of therapy has been built around the care and feeding of the resident pet, giving residents something to look forward to.

Residents meet to discuss the animal’s care and other matters relating to the animal.  They may develop their own charts and schedules to take care of him or her.  Of course the staff must watch out to avoid problems of jealousy over the pet and caring for him.

Characteristics that make for a good therapy dog are more about temperament than training.  Of course such dogs do require basic obedience training, but personality plays a crucial role in determining which dogs will succeed as animal assistance dogs.  Patients, residents and even staff will react to the dogs in these programs in varying ways.

Some people will be outgoing and show emotion; others will be quite shy.  The dogs must be able to respond to a variety of emotions and remain calm.  They must have stable temperaments, even if patients lunge to grab them or make loud noises.

Dogs may also need to accept various medical equipment and hospital noises in some cases.  When considering a dog for these circumstances you would discount dogs that are nervous or high strung or one that doesn’t like to socialize.

Many studies have shown the benefits and importance of pet therapy.  Pets have been helpful with AIDS patients, cancer patients, the elderly and the mentally ill.

One study has even determined that petting a dog can lower blood pressure. 

Another study found that pets can help reduce stress-related illnesses.  According to a study at City Hospital in New York, heart patients who owned pets lived longer than those who had no pets.  In fact, owning a pet was even more significant to long term survival than whether a person had a spouse or friends.

That’s rather amazing.  Pets can make a remarkable difference in our lives.


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