Assisted therapy dogs

What is animal assisted therapy?

(6 awesome benefits for mankind)

Dogs serve people, helping them cope with and recover from physical and mental conditions. It builds on a concept known as the human – animal bond. 

Paws for People states that dogs and man have shared a close relationship for more than 15,000 years. It is one that is beneficial to both parties. Living with dogs slows blood pressure, reduces stress, and raises oxytocin levels. People feel safe and report less worry or fear with a companion beside them. The dog benefits by the love and nurturing of its owner. How does this happen? When a pet stares into your eyes, it activates the same hormone that bonds us to babies. 

An article in the December ’21 Journal of PLOS ONE states “. . .  a dog is man’s best friend”. (This was during the Covid-19 epidemic.) The study reaffirmed what pet therapy individuals knew all along. “Having a pet is good for you”. Dog owners are better able to overcome mental stress during difficult times. Loving canine companions give social structure, comfort, and boundless joy.

Most of us can relate to this. Go to a park. Notice the reaction of people when they see a dog. Young children get excited and can’t resist the urge to pet them. Most adults smile and long to engage with the owner and their dog also. A friendly dog will wag its tail and strain against the leash to connect in kind. 

Animal therapists use this bond under direction to achieve specific goals.

  • To reduce boredom
  • Increase movement and activity
  • Provide companionship when lonely
  • Increase social interactions
  • Improve mood and well-being

Assisted therapy animals may not be a perfect fit for everyone. Some people are allergic to dander from a shedding dog. Others may be uncomfortable or afraid of animals. 

It is important to emphasize that animal therapy is a complementary treatment. It is not a replacement for other forms of therapy such as psychotherapy or physical therapy.

1. Animal therapy improves mental health

Animal assisted therapy has a strong effect on the widest range of people. The presence of a dog decreases anxiety and depression, lifting one’s spirit. Patients seem to forget about the perception of pain. Petting a dog releases oxytocin which has a calming effect on an anxious individual. The therapy animal gives support and comfort. 

A dog motivates a person to focus on doing exercises to recover faster. Children react  well to dogs and overcome speech and emotional disorders quicker.

This type of therapy helps these conditions:

  • Dementia
  • Anxiety
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Drug use disorder during rehabilitation

2. Some forms of animal therapy used to promote physical health

Therapy dogs motivate one to continue healing treatment, boost their mood, and reduce signs of pain. They may help patients move more often with correct exercise. 

Utilized with the following conditions:

  • Epilepsy
  • Heart failure
  • Pain from cancer treatment
  • Postoperative recovery
  • After a major stroke or any condition where someone has lost motor skills

A major physical effect noted on patients is a lowering of blood pressure. This improves their cardiovascular health. Endorphins released make the person calmer, more relaxed. Petting a dog seems to diminish their pain, thus reducing the amount of medication needed.

3. Students enjoy animal assisted therapy

Children overcome speech and comprehension of words with a dog sitting beside them. This scenario provides a non-stressful, non-judgmental environment for them to learn. Their self-confidence soars. They become less self-consciousness. They soon learn the joy of being able to read.

Colleges students feel less stress and anxiety during exam week. Public schools often have a regular therapy dog available to pet and cuddle as needed. Dogs help them gain confidence to overcome challenges in an educational setting. 

Not every child comes from a home that has a pet. A dog’s trust and unconditional affection is the emotion that children need and crave. Children are still developing their minds and social skills. Therapy dogs give the extra boost that they need. Regular interaction can teach a child how to behave with dogs in a safe and fun way.

Autistic and special needs children struggle with their emotions in a social setting. Therapy dogs can help them face fluctuations in feelings without judgment. To have fun with a furry animal, students need to be calm, gentle and move slow. 

4. Animal assisted therapy used in long-term elderly care facilities

Some nursing homes and assisted living facilities have their own resident therapy dogs. They’ve noticed the difference in their patients. Dogs have a special capacity to empathize, offering sympathy when detecting emotional sadness. They have a unique style of healing through a lucid, calming presence. 

A natural brain stimulant results, improving mental and physical energy while decreasing brain-fog. This motivates residents to join in activities. Brushing a dog’s fur, throwing a ball or walking beside them improves motor skills and joint movement.

The simple presence of an animal takes a person’s mind off their worries. This allows them to relax and breathe slower, a welcome distraction from fear. Residents gain a sense of contentment and happiness. Dogs calm their agitation, lessening problematic behavior in dementia people. Heart rate slows and blood pressure drops to more normal levels. The risk for stroke or heart attack diminishes.

Seniors living alone

Seniors, living alone with a dog, benefit in ways that contribute to longevity. Pets offer emotional, physical, and mental benefits, especially for seniors who are at risk in their isolation.

Pet owners don’t feel lonely. They visit the doctor less often. They take fewer medications, recover from illness faster, and cope better with stress. They have more self-esteem, confidence and better social skills. They are able to show gentleness and caring to others. 

Their physical ability increases for a dog needs exercise. Caring for a pet provides mental stimulation and improved sense of purpose in life. 

5. Therapy animals reduce pain & anxiety in a medical setting

The Mayo Clinic hosts a Caring Canine program. They realize the benefit to patients who receive visits from therapy animals. This is a growing field because it helps people recover from or better cope with health problems. (Heart disease, cancer, mental health issues) 

With permission a therapy dog and its handler visits your hospital room. They stay for 10 to 15 minutes. You’re invited to pet the dog and ask any questions of the handler. This not only benefits the patient but family members in the room also. The dogs are a welcome distraction and reduce stress and anxiety in everyone.

Children in a medical facility for years become separated from both parents for a period of time. Sharing an experience with a therapy dog during visits can strengthen a parent and child bond. They will both have fond memories to reminisce about years later.

The biggest concern, particularly in hospitals, is safety and sanitation. Therapy animals have to be clean, vaccinated, well-trained and screened for appropriate behavior. Even the staff feel better when therapy dogs visit. For a short period of time the interaction rejuvenates them.

Even some dental practices are using therapy animals. The dogs put children at ease while undergoing dental procedures. 

6. Specialty dogs trained to provide a unique service for man

Dogs have helped man since ancient times. Retrievers bring fowl back to hunters. Sled dogs have aided in long distance travel over snow and ice. Herd dogs help move sheep and cattle to fresher pastureland. Guard dogs protect business property. Search and rescue dogs help locate victims in disasters. Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for people with disabilities. (A disability is a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental condition.)

A service dog relates to a handler’s disability:

  • Guide dogs help blind people navigate their world
  • Hearing dogs alert deaf people to sounds ( a knock on a door or someone entering a room)
  • Psychiatric dogs detect and lessen the effect of an impending episode
  • They may open doors or cabinets, fetch things out of reach, or carry items for wheelchair users
  • Autism dogs distinguish sensory signals and alert caregivers to repetitive behavior and overstimulation
  • Some dogs can recognize potential seizure activity and stand over victims for protection

Service dogs can go into restaurants, libraries, stores, and all public places. Housing must admit them if pets aren’t generally allowed. They can board airplanes and public transport vehicles. They’re required to sit on a traveler’s lap or at their feet. They cannot block an emergency exit. They’re exempt from pet fees on airplanes.

Specific working dogs trained to aid humans in their jobs.

Dogs rely on an excellent sense of smell to help where humans fall short. Search and rescue dogs find missing persons under rubble in disaster situations. Police use K-9s to locate people reported missing. They’ll follow a scent from a personal object of the victim. Dogs can do cadaver searches and locate avalanche or drowning victims. Bloodhounds are adept at this.

There are dogs trained to detect explosives. Transportation agencies and the military use them to locate dangerous materials. German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are the usual breeds skillful at this.

Labrador retrievers can sniff cancer on a person’s breath. Alert dogs can detect an allergen in a school, at social events and everyday activities for its owner. Poodles and Portuguese Water Dogs are the best breeds for this work.

They are not subject to legal ramifications Do not approach or pet when they’re working. Their job requires a high level of focus without distractions.

Therapy dogs volunteer in clinical settings

Hospitals, mental health institutions, hospices, schools, and nursing homes use dogs more often. They provide comfort, affection and even love. They’re not allowed access in public spaces. They aren’t a service dog. They should be trained, insured and licensed by the non-profit offering their services.

The Alliance of Therapy Dogs tests an animal for its suitability. If accepted there are specific guidelines for their handlers.

Emotional dogs aren’t service animals.

They’re trained for a specific owner with a psychological disorder. These dogs are companion animals to ease anxiety, depression, or panic attacks. A mental health professional prescribes their use.

There is a constant need for assisted therapy dogs

Assisted therapy dogs have a special role to perform in our society. Honor and love them for their service. Their handlers need support also. So many deserving people benefit, allowing them to live more normal lives.

Do you have a dog that is even-tempered and behaved? Consider joining the ranks of therapy dog handlers. I promise, you will benefit more than the people you serve. Dogs thrive when they have a special work to do. They desire to serve us and have so much love to give.

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