Animal Assisted Therapy:
How does it help?

Assistance Dogs
animal assisted therapy dog

Animal assisted therapy is different from the more common procedure of animal assisted activities, which normally involves pets visiting hospitals and residential care homes.

Animal Assisted Therapy is part of a standard and carefully prepared treatment program with distinct and measurable objectives that matches one animal to one patient. Under the control of a qualified medical professional, patients with severe mental and/or physical disabilities are encouraged to work together with a therapy dog under the direction of a trained dog handler.

How Animal Assisted Therapy Works

The patient's interaction with the dog is increased slowly. To begin with, the patient may simply observe the dog or touch it. As the patient becomes more receptive and assured, activities may incorporate brushing, attaching collars and even walking the dog. Progress records are maintained as milestones are met and exceeded.

Studies have shown that therapy pets coax people to partake in therapeutic interactions. Dogs are not judgmental, they don't hassle or pressure their partner and they have unlimited tolerance. Further, just because they are animals and need care, the patient grooming them or walking them is made to feel useful. The benefits and expectations of animal assisted therapy, or pet visits, vary according to the needs and circumstances of the patients being visited.

Pet visits are less rigid; they do not follow a particular treatment plan or timetable and they are not predominantly set up on a one pet to one patient structure. Pet visits are common to hospitals, assisted living homes and nursing homes.

They are usually nothing more than a way to entertain people or to change their routine and cheer up their day. On the other hand, when visited by a pet, some people who have in general shut themselves off from human interaction will begin to work their way back to reality.

Apparently, the pet stirs emotions in them that have been lying dormant. Examples have been given where patients who have not spoken a word in over a year will begin to talk to the visiting dog.

Now that animal assisted therapy has become a proven and validated reality, institutions are beginning to capitalize on this fact with the resident pet. This term refers to a cat or a dog that becomes a permanent resident of a particular facility and is normally given free run of the place.

Each resident benefits from a proprietary interest in the animal and looks forward to helping in its care. In some cases, a full course of therapy has been prepared around the care and feeding of a resident pet.

The residents meet to debate what must be done and develop their own charts and schedules to suit the pet's needs. Nevertheless, staff must be continually on the alert to avoid problems of jealousy and feuds over the pet's affections.

The attributes and characteristics that comprise a good visiting dog or therapy dog have more to do with temperament than training. Not to say that the dog will not need training in basic obedience, but that is usually adequate except in extraordinary situations.

Patients and residents react to the dogs in a mixture of ways. Some are effusive, some impulsive and others are shy. Therefore, the dogs must be prepared for anything. It certainly wouldn't do for a dog to lunge away or growl if a patient makes a loud noise or reaches for them abruptly.

When selecting a dog for these purposes, you would not want an animal that is highly strung or one that is too laid back to get up and interact.

Various studies have documented the benefits of animal assisted therapy. Pets have been used in treating AIDS patients, cancer patients, the elderly and the mentally ill. One study determined that petting a dog can lower blood pressure and another found that pets can reduce stress related illnesses.

A study at City Hospital in New York noted that heart patients who owned pets lived longer than those without pets. Owning a pet was found to be more significant to long term survival than the presence of even a spouse or friends.

Pets make us feel good. They reassure us, allow us to be ourselves and give those of us that need it, a reason for living, so maybe now you can understand some of the benefits of animal assisted therapy.

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