The vast majority of people love animals – a cat, a dog, bird, lizard, rabbit, horse or even a mouse. They show us love as much as we show them, and it’s completely unconditional. Almost any domesticated animal can be a comfort animal or have therapeutic benefits – there is no certification for this but it helps to have a therapist write an official letter indicated a child or adult needs their companion to address mental health symptoms. Often therapists are asked to do this so a family can move into a new apartment with strict rules about pets. There is an enormous amount of research already on the books about how animal contact can improve post surgery outcomes, improve social contact in older adults, increase walking times and distances for dog owners, experience a generally higher sense of well-being through their pets.
So why would someone need a therapy animal? All you have to do is adopt a pet and all your troubles are gone, right? I am writing this because I have an amazing dog, a 6 year old black Labrador retriever named Rocky. He’s calm, intuitive, quiet, completely harmless to kids and older adults. I do not have any certifications at this time in doing any “real” therapy work with him but often kids or adults ask me to bring him in. I let everyone know that while he’s healthy, has all his shots, but I am not covered to use him officially. They don’t care; and I am not worried that he’ll hurt anyone. I’ve seen toddlers manhandle him and all he does is lie down and get comfortable. When you stop patting him, he’ll nudge you or put his paw on your knee to remind you that he’s still there. I have a security system because frankly he would just lick a robber to death.
To use an animal for therapy, you need a therapist. The animal can’t go to school for that. The animal should pass a screening for the right behavioral attributes and have basic training for obedience. Many therapists have their own pets – horses at a ranch, dogs, cats, goats. People who are anxious benefit from talking while petting the soft fur – that tactile stimulation can help ground people in the present moment, and help them connect back to their body (see my NARM post) as so often people will disassociate when stressed. Children who have impulsive behaviors learn more empathy so see that their rough treatment might not be the right way to get the animal to “make friends” with them.
The animal therapy has specific goals for treatment. It is the primary intervention for the client. The other type is animal-assisted therapy (AAT) where the animal’s presence is secondary to the therapy going on. An animal can get a reticent child into the office, or motivate a teen to engage, or be a surrogate face to talk to when in distress.
My favorite example of Animal therapy is from the first book written by abduction survivor, Jaycee Dugard. She wrote that for her first session she was handed a saddle and assigned to saddle a horse (something she had never done before). Her two daughters did fine. She could not do it, after many failed attempts. Her therapist then asked her why she did not ask for help? This then spurred a discussion and realization that for years she could have asked for help while living with her captors. Everyone brings something different to therapy, and animals can offer something different and unique to each situation either as the therapy or as a jumping off point.