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Healing Animals

While there are many animals, including horses, miniature pigs, rabbits, birds, etc., this blog post will be targeted specifically toward dogs.

Distinguishing the Difference:

There is a difference between a service animal, therapy animal, and emotional support animal. A service animal is trained to help people with disabilities such as visual impairments, mental illnesses, seizure disorders, diabetes, etc. A therapy dog is trained to provide comfort and affection to people in hospice, disaster areas, retirement homes, hospitals, nursing homes, schools and more. Emotional support dogs provide their owners therapeutic benefits through companionship.

Benefits of Human-Animal Interactions:

Empathy: Identifying with and understanding the feelings and motives of others. Studies have shown that children who live in homes in which a pet is considered a member of the family, are more empathetic than children in homes without pets. As children age, their ability to empathize with animals will carry over into their experiences with people.

Outward Focus: Bringing individuals out of themselves. Rather than thinking and talking about themselves and their problems, clients can watched and talk about the animals.

Nurturing: Promoting the growth and development of another living thing. To some extent, a person who is engaged in nurturing activities is also fulfilling his or her own need to be nurtured.

Rapport: A relationship of mutual trust of a feeling of connection or bonding. Animals can open a channel of emotionally safe, non-threatening communication between client and therapist. Animals can create an “air of emotional safety.”

Acceptance: Favorable reception or approval. An animal’s acceptance is nonjudgemental, forgiving, uncomplicated, and unconditional.

Entertainment: Even people who don’t care for animals often enjoy watching their antics and reactions.

Socialization: Seeking out or enjoying the company of others. Studies have shown that when animals come to visit a care facility, there is more laughter and interaction among residents than during any other entertainment or therapy time.

Mental Stimulation: Increased mental stimulation occurs because of the opportunities animals provide for communicating with other people, recalling memories, and entertainment. In situations that can be depressing or isolating, the presence of the animal serves to brighten the atmosphere, increasing amusement, laughter, and play.

Physical Contact/Touch: For some people, touch from another person is not acceptable, but the warm, furry touch of a dog is. In hospitals and other medical facilities where most touch is painful or invasive, the touch of an animal is safe, nonthreatening, and pleasant.

Physiological Benefits: Positive effects on the basic functioning of the body. Many people are able to relax more easily when animals are present. Studies have shown decreased hear rate and blood pressure can be dramatic.

Something More: When people are with animals, some feel a spiritual fulfillment or a sense of oneness with life and nature.

Professionals Who Can Use Therapy Animals Include:

  • Speech-language pathologists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Physical therapists
  • Certified therapeutic recreation specialist (CTRS)
  • Recreational therapist or activity director Counselors
  • Psychologists
  • Social workers
  • Teachers or teaching aids
  • Physicians

Implementing Animals into Therapy, Treatment, or Learning Can Include:

Physical: Improve fine and gross motor skills, wheelchair skills, standing balance

Mental: Increase verbal interactions, attention, and self-esteem, reduce anxiety, ease loneliness, develop recreational skills

Educational: Increase vocabulary and language skills, improve long- and short-term memory, and improve knowledge of concepts such as size, color, etc.

Motivational: Improve willingness to be involved in a group activity, interactions with others, increase exercise

Please be aware that not all individuals may benefit or enjoy visits from a therapy animal. It is imperative you learn warning signs when recognizing stress in people and implement appropriate actions immediately. Some signs include:

  • Irritability
  • Moodiness (outbursts of anger)
  • High blood pressure
  • Severe stomach or digestive disorders
  • Manic (rapid, rambling) speech and behavior
  • Severe depression
  • Yawning
  • Withdrawal (verbal, physical, and emotional)
  • Nervousness

Knowing Your Teammate!

Ask Yourself the Following Questions:

  1. Do I/my partner (therapy animal) prefer children and/or adult interactions?
  2. Does my partner enjoy clumsy petting and exuberant attention from children?
  3. Will my partner respond to commands under unusual circumstances and within distracting environments?
  4. Am I able to set limits and control interactions?
  5. Do I have enough training to be comfortable in this setting?
  6. Is my partner even-tempered, good natured, and forgiving?
  7. Will it be hard for me to control my emotions during a visit? Will I be upset or depressed after my visit?
  8. Can my partner adjust to the sights, sounds, and smells of a hospital?
  9. Can my partner refrain from kissing or licking other than on cue?
  10. Is my partner free of any signs of illness and can I maintain vaccination and regular grooming requirements?
  11. Does my partner know how to walk carefully around medical equipment?
  12. What is my level of commitment?

You and your partner should be reliable, predictable, and controllable.

“Dogs lives are short-their only fault, really.” –Author Unknown

Changing Behaviors

Nellie Belle Harter

I got my first dog when I was in my masters program in Lubbock, Texas at 6-weeks old. Much to my parents dismay, who strongly advised against getting a dog, I picked up Nellie Belle from a lady off a county road whose dogs had accidentally had a litter. She just wanted to ensure the pups went to a good home and got all recommended vaccinations, so all she asked for my sweet girl was $50.00. I should have gotten two!

Nellie was so different from any dog I’d had before. She was intuitive, sensitive, obedient, and forgiving. She went everywhere with me. My mother often laughs when she tells the story when she came to visit me and we took Nellie out into a large field with prairie dogs. The field was surrounded on all sides by main roads, which made my mom nervous as ever. I wanted to show my mom how Nellie would “hunt” the prairie dogs. Turns out my mom enjoyed watching Nellie go just 30 yards, max, from me and turn around to make sure I hadn’t left her. Some might say she has separation anxiety, but this quality made her a fabulous therapy dog. With just a little training to stop her incessant licking (she loves HARD!), I had Nellie certified right around her 2nd birthday! She did it! The certification team loved watching her do her “bang, bang” trick where she rolled on the ground with her legs up in the air, and her sitting “like a lady” with her paws crossed. Unfortunately because of my busy work schedule and traveling a lot, I did not work Nellie very long before she went into “retirement.”

Fast forward a couple years, and Nellie gained a dad (my husband, Brandon). Mine and Brandon’s biggest disagreement was how many dogs to have in our relationship, the incessant dog hair, and Nellie sleeping in the bed and getting on the furniture. Before long, Nellie had Brandon wrapped around her paw, even going as far to pick her up to put her on the bed with us, where she sleeps on the pillows between us. She softened his heart in no time! While this is everything I could have hoped for, and even led to us getting another black lab (Nova Lou!), Brandon’s presence in her life changed Nellie’s personality. She became more nervous, barking at noises or randomly, whining if either of us left the house, and seeming to only be at ease when we were both with her.

After moving to Michigan, I was looking to have her certified as a therapy dog. However, I had to be honest with these behavior changes and how they might impact the populations we visit. I made the decision for us, as a team, that her skills already served and continue to serve a purpose right her in her home. My husband has an insanely stressful job and while he might want to come home angry, very rarely does he not smile when he opens the door to see his “Girls!” That is therapy. When I become lonely missing my family in Texas, Nellie knows and snuggles extra close (AKA, on my lap). That is therapy.

Thank you for your service, Nellie Belle.

Leigh Harter with dog

Interested in getting your dog certified or purchasing a service animal? Check out these resources:

Book Recommendations:

  • The Loving Bond: Companion Animals in the Helping Professions
  • Why the Wild Things Are, Animals in the Lives of Children
  • Made for Each Other
  • My Stroke of Insight
  • Pets and Mental Health
  • The Four-Footed Therapist
  • Good for Your Animals, Good for You, How to Live and Work with Animals In Activity Programs and Stay Healthy
  • The Dog’s Mind: Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior
  • On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals

#TherapyAnimals #Healing #Pet #ServiceAnimal