What is animal-assisted therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy, also called pet therapy, is an alternative or complementary form of treatment where animals, usually dogs or horses, are used as a medium in therapeutic intervention.
Animal-assisted therapy can be used to treat several psychological problems. It can improve social, emotional, or cognitive functioning in people with various emotional or physical difficulties and across age groups. Animal-assisted therapy can also be helpful in educational settings and motivational purposes.
During a therapeutic session, clients are usually invited to stroke or pet a dog. Those who don’t feel comfortable doing this may prefer to watch from a distance. Therapeutic sessions are guided by what clients feel most comfortable with.
Animals are thoroughly screened for the right character qualities, such as patience and responsiveness. The type and name of animal-assisted therapy depend on the animal used in the intervention. Dr Nick uses his pet Labrador Retriever called Dolly in therapy.
Can any dog become a therapy dog?
Almost! The criteria for becoming a therapy dog can vary between centres. They include a set of suitability assessments, such as certificates from vets or background (CRB) checks of the owners. However, any dog breed can be used for therapeutic purposes, as long as its behaviour and temperament are suitable for the role.
The critical criteria are that the animal is very patient and responds to commands regardless of its distractions. Furthermore, the animal needs to be friendly, patient, confident, gentle, at ease in all situations and happy to be handled by strangers. Some of the other essential behaviours include:
- Exceptional tolerance of handling by strangers
- No sensitivity to rough stroking or petting
- Excellent obedience levels
- The ability to walk on the lead without pulling
- Tolerance of unusual smells and sites, such as wheelchairs, medical devices
- No fear of unsteady movement in humans
- Calm and docile
- Tolerance of other animals
- No food or toy aggression or guarding behaviours
As therapy dogs must be exceptionally well behaved and reliable, older dogs are more likely to be suited to the role than the younger ones. Therapy dogs must never jump on or even paw at humans, as this can cause fearful reactions in vulnerable clients. Therapy dogs should be groomed regularly and have annual check-ups at the vet to ensure they are healthy.
Does animal-assisted therapy work?
Research shows that animal-assisted therapy can effectively enhance emotional and physical well-being in various conditions and across age groups. Conditions include autism spectrum disorder, attention-hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, and learning disabilities of different severity.
Evidence suggests that petting a dog helps release ‘happiness and connectedness hormones’, such as serotonin and oxytocin, which in turn help us feel more at ease with others and improve our mood. This effect could enhance the psychotherapy that may be taking place at the same time.
Animal-assisted therapy has also been found to be a beneficial and effective complementary treatment for people with dementia, reducing feelings of depression, anxiety, agitation, aggression, and loneliness and isolation, thus improving the overall quality of life.
The main objective of therapy is to help relieve stress and tension, even just for a brief time to provide emotional respite and problem-solving.
Additional benefits of animal-assisted therapy include:
- Stress relief
- Increase in a positive mood
- Lowers anxiety and helps to relax by helping to stabilise heart rate and breathing rate
- Provides comfort.
- Increase in motivation
- Reduces loneliness.
- Could speed up the therapy process
- Increases mental stimulation.
- Helps to build relationships and improve communication with other people, especially for those with autism spectrum disorders
- Assist people with head injuries or chronic diseases such as dementia in recalling memories and help sequence of events.
- Reduces overall physical pain.
- Can provide an escape or happy distraction
- Lowers blood pressure and improves cardiovascular health.