Animal-assisted therapy is an alternative therapy method that is steadily growing in popularity in the mental health field. As research provides more and more evidence of the relief animals can offer during the healing process, we are starting to see therapy animals in a wide range of settings, from prisons to hospitals. While clients are welcome to play with these animals, there is more that meets the eye behind the fun and games. There are real psychological benefits to interacting with animals. After all, what better way to bring cheer to animal lovers than by handing them a puppy?
Before we discuss the benefits of therapy animals, it is important to understand the difference between a service dog, an emotional support animal, and a therapy animal.
Psychiatric service dogs are trained to assist an individual with a psychiatric disorder by performing tasks the handler is unable to do for him or herself. For example, someone with posttraumatic stress disorder may need a service dog to guide them to safety during a panic attack or wake them up from nightmares. These dogs are legally permitted in areas that are off-limits to other animals. Strangers should not attempt to interact with service dogs, as the dogs could be distracted from their duty, which could put the dog’s handler in danger should the dog’s services be required (Crowell, 2015).
Emotional Support Animals
These animals are trained to comfort and provide emotional support for individuals with a mental or physical illness but are not able to perform specific tasks to alleviate. They are simply there so for the enjoyment of their company. Emotional support animals don’t only include dogs; a wide variety of animals can be used for emotional support. These animals are permitted in areas that don’t otherwise allow pets, but more places are off-limits to emotional support animals than service dogs (Crowell, 2015).
Therapy animals visit agencies such as nursing homes or schools to help clients feel better and lift their spirits. These animals are formally trained to behave calmly and patiently in situations they will be facing when interacting with clients, such as being hugged in a rough manner or being surrounded by loud machinery or wheelchairs. Therapy animals must be certified by a credentialed organization before they can begin therapy work. Usually, their handlers are either mental health professionals or volunteers who work with these agencies (Crowell, 2015). We will be focusing primarily on therapy animals in this article.
Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy
Animals offer a range of benefits to the therapeutic process, depending on the animal and whom they are working with. Interacting with any therapy animal is shown to boost mood in individuals with depression, relieve stress, and distract sick people from the pain they are experiencing. Dogs are wonderful for providing a non-judgmental ear for children who are learning to read and comforting children in traumatic situations, such as abused children who must tell their story in court. Rabbits and guinea pigs are good therapy animals for clients who are afraid of dogs. They are also helpful for working in hospice and nursing home agencies where clients may experience limited mobility; a guinea pig or rabbit can be placed on the client’s lap or chest for quality therapy time. Equine (horse) therapy is commonly used to treat people with posttraumatic stress disorder and autism, along with other disabilities. Working with horses is known to promote healthy communication skills, boundaries, trust, and social skills. Horses are frequently used to work with troubled youth who are often resistant to traditional therapies (“What is Equine Therapy?”, 2008).
How to Certify a Therapy Animal
There are a variety of organizations that offer classes and tests to train and certify a therapy animal. Training a therapy animal can be an intensive process so it is recommended that dogs complete basic and intermediate training before pursuing therapy animal training. Some organizations that train therapy dogs require dogs to first pass the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Test, which can be found at the following url: http://www.animalhumanesociety.org/training/canine-good-citizen-test.
Once the Good Citizen Test is completed, dogs may attend therapy classes usually affiliated with a local therapy animal organization. Some organizations also offer one-on-one classes for other therapy animals such as cats or rabbits. It is important to research local animal therapy organizations to view their list of requirements for certification. Some organizations only offer training to dogs, so handlers wanting to certify other animals must see if this is possible before visiting the organization. Local veterinarians, dog trainers, and mental health agencies that utilize therapy animals may be able to direct you to nearby animal therapy classes.