by Jenny Holt
Animal-assisted therapy is a form of treatment involving interaction between animals and people. There are a wide range of programs and initiatives which can help improve many psychological and physical problems, and the scientific proof of its benefits means that animal-assisted therapy is seen as a useful addition to regular therapy types and traditional medicine.
Work as a therapy animal can be rewarding for the animal too – with correct guidance to the patients, most interactions will be enjoyable for all concerned. Some animal rights groups protest the use of animals for therapy, classing it as exploitation and demeaning. However, it can be argued that as the animals must be fit and healthy to take part in the therapy programs, there is more of a check on their welfare than the average pet. Those running the therapy programs should make sure that they have a sufficient number of animals so that each gets the necessary rest time between their duties.
Adaptable and Accessible
Several different animals are used for therapy purposes, but the most common are dogs, horses, and dolphins. Animal-assisted therapy can take place in a variety of locations, but some animals are understandably more versatile than others; dogs can easily access hospitals, prisons, care homes, and peoples’ houses, whereas horses and dolphins need to be visited in their specific environments. The activities that therapy animals are involved with can range from simply petting and stroking, which can have calming and emotional benefits, to actively playing games, which can increase physical strength and refine motor skills. Dogs can also give greater independence to those with difficulties, through their ability to perform many assistance tasks and other amazing feats of loyalty and bravery.
Beneficial to All
Visits from therapy animals have been seen to help elderly people in nursing homes, who can become withdrawn or inactive because of the change in pace and lifestyle. The animal acts as a great motivator for the person physically and mentally, and benefits are seen regardless of the person’s demographic. Studies have shown that the presence of a friendly animal can lower blood pressure, and spending even a few minutes stroking a dog can increase feel-good hormones which are associated with happiness.
Although it has not yet been exactly quantified why animals can produce this calming effect, it is generally believed that therapy animals act as a source of non-judgemental support, and that humans have a natural tendency to connect with other living beings. The unconditional love and devotion shown by all kinds of dogs makes it clear why they have long earned the title, ‘man’s best friend‘, even outside of specific therapy programs.