Paws with Purpose: How Pet Therapy Helps Children and Adults Heal
Undeniable affection and their amazing ability to learn are just a few of the many wonderful aspects of our canine friends. For the dog lover, the significant emotional and physiological benefits of the human-dog connection is nothing new. It is incredibly exciting to see research that supports and affirms this basic truth: interacting with an animal can be healing.
A study by Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D., RN, of the University of Missouri-Columbia Center for the Study of Animal Wellness, illustrated that when we interact with a pet, such as petting our dog, we experience an overall sense of well-being. This is largely due to what takes place in us physiologically as the body produces more “feel good” chemicals, such as dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphin. Studies conducted in the 80s concluded that heart attack survivors who owned a dog lived longer than those without – and, that simply petting a dog can lower blood pressure.
While we all consider our own wonderful pooches to be exceptional and perhaps even therapeutic to us, for a dog to be classified as a service dog, specific criteria and rigorous training must be met to teach these dogs the skills they will need to be a therapeutic partner.
What is Pet Therapy?
Pet-assisted therapy, or pet therapy, encompasses a wide range of ways in which canines and other animals provide support to help children and adults cope with, or recover from, health or emotional challenges. The services that these amazing animals perform help patients increase their physical mobility, improve in areas of trauma recovery, cope with the symptoms of mental illness, improve cognitive function, and better perform in jobs and engage in social situations.
Therapy dogs go through a series of training sessions related specifically to the population they will assist and the tasks they must accomplish. Organizations like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and Therapy Dogs International have even created policies and definitions around animal-assisted therapy to help monitor programs that best serve both these amazing canines and the individuals being helped.
Therapeutic Dogs and Kids
The power of canine-supported therapy can provide untold benefits for children who sometimes cannot put their feelings and experiences into words. The connection a child might share with a therapeutic canine can enhance the child’s sense of safety and comfort. This unspoken connection can alleviate some of the fear and confusion.
Therapy dogs work with children who have experienced trauma or abuse, children facing surgery or ongoing medical treatment, and children with cognitive or psychosocial challenges. Some of the many ways these amazing dogs assist kids include:
- Helping young patients cope with pain, fear, and uncertainty in children’s hospitals
- Teaching empathy and compassion in schools, domestic violence shelters, and community centers
- As certified assistance dogs to aid those children with hearing or vision impairments or other physical challenges
- Increasing social and communication abilities in children struggling with autism
- Creating a sense of safety and connection for children suffering from the effects of trauma and abuse
- Alerting children to potentially life-threatening allergens, such as bees, peanuts, and shellfish
Pet Therapy and the Elderly
Many dogs are used in nursing homes, assisted living communities, and hospitals to help older patients cope with a myriad of issues related to aging, illness, grief, depression, and social isolation. Therapy dogs can help the elderly by:
- Assisting with activities for daily living, such as retrieving needed items, food preparation, personal hygiene, and medication management
- Serving those with hearing and vision impairments
- Providing emotional support and socialization
Truly, the list of services that therapeutic assistance dogs are now performing on behalf of children and adults is endless.
Since dogs became our companions, some 12,000 years ago, we have been in awe of the abilities and loyalty of “man’s (and woman’s) best friend”. Pet therapy is becoming an increasingly effective and meaningful choice in human healing. To read a few heartwarming stories on what these incredible therapeutic animals can do, read Eight Amazing Therapy Animals and Their Stories.
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