The Healing Power of Therapy Animals
(ARA) – When Sunny, a 3-year-old golden retriever, began working for San Diego Unified School District last spring, one of her first students was a fourth-grader with cerebral palsy, mobile only with the aid of a walker.
Adaptive physical education teacher Andrea Bazer says that as soon as this young student met Sunny, she was eager to take Sunny for a walk — first with the help of her walker, then with Bazer helping, and finally without any assistance. This transformation took several months, but once the student knew she could walk Sunny without the walker, she realized she didn’t need a walker at all.
“She walks all over school now,” says Bazer, who has worked as an adaptive physical education teacher for the district for six years. “It’s amazing to see. Sunny gets the kids to do many things that they won’t do for me. When they’re working with Sunny, they forget they can’t do things.”
Therapy animals like Sunny are highly trained and play very active roles in the educational or therapy program they’re involved in. Sunny helps by playing fetch and other interactive games with the students. Children in therapy with horses benefit through interacting with the animals and riding them. A client must be confident to lead and/or train a therapy animal, and this provides an opportunity for growth.
Today, animals help out in educational and health care settings so often that the wide array of roles they play can be a bit confusing. For example, within the ranks of assistance animals, there are therapy dogs like Sunny and also visiting animals, which visit the sick in hospitals or nursing homes, providing a warm, soft head to pat.
Bazer works with about 45 preschool to sixth grade children with disabilities at five schools, and she said that Sunny is an asset in her class. Sunny recently helped Bazer achieve a breakthrough with a preschool-aged child who was refusing to open up when faced with a stranger – Bazer. “The child’s first word during the assessment was ‘dog,’ as soon as he saw Sunny,” Bazer explains.
Sunny is a hard worker as well; she works 40 hours a week at schools, and then Bazer regularly takes her to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego to give a psychological boost to wounded soldiers receiving treatment.
Dr. Hayden Sears, vice chairman of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) Committee on Human-Animal Bond says the impact animals can have on hospital and nursing home patients, people with disabilities, children and the elderly in therapy situations is remarkable to witness. Dr. Sears worked with therapy animals prior to becoming a veterinarian.
“I have also done a lot with horses and people,” Dr. Sears explains. “People with multiple sclerosis, people with broken backs, all the way down to children with cerebral palsy, really benefit from working with a therapy horse.”
Dr. Sears says that while most people associate therapy animals with a psychological boost for patients, the impact can also be very physical. For example, horseback riding is known to stimulate the nervous system and offer strengthening and mobility therapy for the disabled. Research consistently shows that therapy animals are helpful with multiple conditions, including heart disease, substance abuse, schizophrenia and dementia.
The active ingredient in animal therapy is a little-understood concept called the human-animal bond. The AVMA has officially recognized the existence of the human-animal bond since 1982. And the AVMA states that this bond has existed for thousands of years. “Interactions with animals can provide emotional and physical health benefits for diverse human populations, including the elderly, children, physically disabled, deaf, blind, emotionally or physically ill, and the incarcerated,” AVMA policy states.
Therapy animals have a long history, as well. Florence Nightingale recommended the use of a small pet to provide companionship to the sick, and ancient Greeks believed dogs had healing powers.
While most therapy animals are dogs and cats, therapists have found success using chickens and even small ruminants like goats.
“There have been therapy programs that have worked with cattle,” says Carol Davis, executive director of Paws’itive Teams, a California organization that trains both therapy and service animals. Paws’itive Teams is the organization that trained Sunny.
Davis says that over the past decade she’s seen the demand for her animals increase and more diversity in the work these animals are asked to do. Today, therapy animals trained by Paws’itive Teams work with foster children during evaluation sessions and with children who have been victimized.
“We have one dog that works at a county courthouse with children who have been abused and will have to testify against their abuser,” Davis says. “In some cases, the judge will allow the children to take the dog with them onto the stand for support.”
The AVMA policy on therapy animals suggests that the relationship between therapy animals and their human clients must be mutually beneficial, explains Dr. Emily Patterson-Kane of the AVMA Animal Welfare Division.
“People experience great benefits from living or working with therapy animals, and we must make sure that the animals benefit from working with us,” Patterson-Kane says. “The real power of the human-animal bond is that people and animals can make each others’ lives richer and more meaningful.”
Courtesy of ARAcontent
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