Most of us, if asked what animals provide therapy to humans would probably answer, “dogs.” But we wouldn’t always be right.
Although some dogs do provide therapy, the dogs that most people think of when faced with such a question are service dogs rather than therapy dogs. There is a difference between a therapy animal and a service animal.
Service animals are carefully trained to meet the needs of an owner with physical disabilities, and are allowed, by law, to accompany that person into public places where other animals may not be allowed. Each service animal may be taught something different such as how to care for a visually or hearing impaired person, how to open doors, or pick up dropped objects, or perhaps to help a disabled person keep their balance when walking.
A young blind woman in the church I attend never goes anywhere without her guide dog. This particular young lady is also confined to a wheel chair, and as soon as she is settled at the end of a back row at church, the dog is right beside her, ready to defend her or attend to her needs if needed.
Therapy animals are different.
In 1860, the famous nurse, Florence Nightingale, wrote that caring for a small pet could often play a huge role in recovery from illness, loss or trauma.
Therapy animals are usually pets and often provide emotional rather than physical help. Since they are considered pets, they are not exempt from the laws restricting pets from restaurants or other public buildings like licensed service animals are. And, most therapy animals are accompanied by their owners when they provide therapy to someone.
One of the most common uses of therapy animals is in nursing homes. An owner brings a pet to visit, usually at scheduled times, and keeps close tabs on the animal while allowing the residents to pet and cuddle the animal. Many of these individuals have been forced to give up their own pets when they moved into the nursing homes and love the chance to play with a small kitten or dog for a few minutes again.
The visitor isn’t necessarily limited to cats and dogs. With prior permission from nursing home supervisors, an occasional snake, hamster, guinea pig, rabbit, or bird may also drop by. The presence of these animals gives residents the feeling that they are not as far removed from the outside world as they may have thought, and also gives them something new to talk about when family members stop by for a visit.
Recently, schools have started experimenting with therapy dogs (and cats) to encourage slow readers. The owner brings his pet to school and the child gets to read a story to the animal. Many teachers report a huge increase in reading-aloud interest when a therapy dog is scheduled for a visit.
Hospitals also recognize the value of animal-assisted therapy and many, like Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill have taken advantage of a local humane society sponsored program in their area. Over the last 3 years, 36,000 of their patients have been visited by animals under this program. (1)
Even the lowly little goldfish swimming around in a bowl has been used to provide therapy to bored patients who face long periods of recovery in a facility away from home. Doctors agree that watching fish in an aquarium can lower a patient’s blood pressure, and, if the patient is able, having the daily responsibility to see that the fish get fed is also helpful to the patient’s long-term outlook.
Just outside of Eugene, Oregon, is an organization called Horsetails. This group uses horses to facilitate clients in overcoming a variety of personal problems, including such things as anxiety, depression, behavioral disorders, and various addictions. For more information on this particular organization, check out the link provided below. (2)
Other programs pair delinquent teens with horses to care for. Even though they have had very little responsibility in their lives, these teens seem to adjust quickly to the routine required of them to care for the horse assigned to them. Some stay in the program for a number of years and even go on to jobs later that enable them to buy a horse of their own. (3)
Horses have also been used successfully with autistic children. Such children, who have trouble bonding with the humans in their lives, seem to be able to bridge that gap where horses are concerned. (4)
A number of states have helped solve the overcrowding problem in the local animal shelters by allowing some prison inmates to care for dogs at the prison. Wardens report less fighting and unrest among the inmates and a growing number of requests for more dogs. (5)
As you can see, there doesn’t seem to be much of a limit on which animals can become therapy animals. It seems that almost any animal can be used to bring comfort and encouragement, and even healing to those who are in need of them.
If you have a pet you think would do well as a therapy animal, why not check out some of the institutions in your area to see if they are interested.
1. Edward Animal Assisted Therapy Website, http://www.edward.org/11016.cfm
2. Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association Website, http://www.horsetails.org/
3. Aspen Education Group Website, http://www.aspeneducation.com/Article-equine-therapy.html
4. Gentle Horses Help Rein in Autism in Kids, E. J. Mundell, http://info.epmhmr.org/poc/view_doc.php?type=news&id=129888&cn=20
5. Cell Dogs – Healing for All Involved, C. Kinnear, http://hubpages.com/hub/Cell-Dogs—Healing-For-All-Involved