The benefits that accrue from the relationship between animals and humans are the cornerstone of animal-assisted therapies (AAT) as well as animal-assisted activities (AAA).
The human-canine bond is one of the most ancient interspecies relationships, as dogs have been provided help and support to their human friends throughout history. Considering that health is more than the absence of illness, and wellness is a state of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being, it would be reasonable to consider that an unconditional friendship could have a positive impact on human health.
Despite the widespread belief that animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities have emerged just recently, people working at health facilities and animal-related organizations have been stating their benefits for many years. Qualitative observations of individuals and personnel at different institutions affirm that the presence of animals relieves loneliness and reduces monotony, fosters social interaction, increases patient interactivity, and is enjoyed and appreciated by patients.
A Little Bit Of History
Despite earlier attempts of integrating animals to rehabilitation programs, the formal training of service and assistance dogs began in the twentieth century. Since then, many studies were conducted with the goal of assessing the health benefits of AAT and provide health practitioners with conclusions that allow the formal use of AAT as alternative or complementary therapies.
In 1962, American psychologist Boris Levinson integrated AAT into clinical psychology on his paper “The dog as a ‘co-therapist’”. He was the first to define “pet-oriented child psychotherapy”, which we now refer to as pet-therapy. Since Levinson’s own dog, Jingles, helped improve the condition of an autistic child patient, he recognized the role of pets as a catalytic agent in a child’s socialization process. He suggested that the creation of a well-trained Canine Counseling Corps for Children might not be taken seriously; however a dog corps served heroically in the performance of military tasks during World War II, so why couldn’t they be trained to act as psychotherapeutic aides?
Dr. Levinson also considered the presence of pets to be a stimuli for sensory-motor development in young children. Throughout many publications, he continued to make valuable contributions regarding pet-assisted therapies. For instance, his books Pet-oriented Child Psychotherapy and Pets and Human Development were published in 1969 and 1973, respectively.
For many years, dogs, cat, horses, birds, rabbits, dolphins, turtles as well as robots that simulate the moves of animals were tested on different populations. Elders, veterans, patients following chemotherapy, individuals with disabilities, psychiatric patients, prison inmates, and many other groups were studied to prove the effects of pet-ownership and AAT.
The results were as diverse as the populations studied and the animals involved. Yet, they all concluded that AAT reduces depression and anxiety, and fosters socialization skills, reaffirming the observations of field workers. In a conversation with the Director of Children Program of Therapeutic Paws of Canada, Barb Kelly, we learned what she has experienced when her therapy dog, Brent, and her were part of an AAT program. Her insight following visits to many retirement homes, her experience motivating children to read with Brent’s help, and the path toward becoming a therapy team, are well described in the article How To Train A Therapy Dog.
What Are The Benefits Of AAT?
Therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort to people that could benefit from their presence. They perform visits to institutions, such as hospitals, retirement homes, libraries, etc., always as a therapy team, i.e. with a handler, with the goal of enhancing an individual’s recovery and rehabilitation. Their beneficial influence has been described as having the below effects:
- Increases calmness and happiness, thus reducing stress;
- Motivates physical activity and daily walking;
- Reduces symptoms of depression, loneliness, isolation, boredom and anxiety;
- Strengthens self-esteem and increases social interactions and communication;
- Helps in bridging the gap between patients and healthcare providers;
- Assists in independent or assisted movement;
- Accelerates the healing or recovery process; and
- Encourages self-expression, and self-motivation.
Why Are Therapy Dog Organizations Important?
As therapy dogs continue to gain popularity, many organizations dedicated to promote AAT, establish evaluation criteria and regulate their actions have emerged. These initiatives connect institutions or individuals interested in receiving AAT with volunteer-based groups consisting of dogs and their owners, as well as offer training and certifications following current legislation and standards.
Nevertheless, until well-documented evidence can provide support to any sort of animal-assisted practice, the most valuable information remains amongst field personnel, as staff, volunteers, handlers, trainers, individuals and organizations collect data based on real observations. For this reason, and to better understand and learn more about this topic and their mission, we created a series of interview with volunteers or the executive members of organizations that work to make the world more dog-friendly.
Our goal is to allow the knowledge and experience of those who actively participate in these types of organizations to act as a guide and serve as inspiration to dog lovers and professionals. Also, we hope that by sharing their expertise, they can provide tips and resources that other dog lovers can replicate to contribute to the betterment of their communities and bring the healing power of pets to others.
If you are involved within a dog-related organization, or are a member of a multidisciplinary team of animal-assisted therapy and/or have experience training assistance dogs, we would love to hear from you!