Animals are often more than just a pet. Research has shown that interacting with an animal can lower your heart rate, increase serotonin and dopamine levels, and be good for your health in general.
Therefore, combining animals with therapy can result in a better outcome for the patient. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) involves incorporating an animal into the therapeutic process. There are clear therapeutic goals and it is a purpose-driven intervention, not just a visit.
Dogs and therapy
Depending on the therapeutic goal, a dog is introduced initially to act as a social lubricant between the patient and therapist. People lacking trust are often more open to engaging with a dog than a human. The animal serves as a talking point, which takes the pressure off the patient and alleviates some of the early anxiety they may feel when undergoing counselling.
Claire Voges, a Pawz and Play AAT Practitioner, helps people with self-esteem issues, bullying, parental separation and divorce, trauma, grief and loss, social issues, and aggression and anger management.
Connecting with people
Animals are great at providing a means of connecting with people who have trust issues with humans.
“A dog can provide a sense of safety for the client and also physical touch and affection, which we as the human therapist cannot provide. When talking about something distressing it can be soothing to pet or stroke a dog and have the comfort that comes with that interaction.
“If I’m working with a child who has self-esteem issues,” explains Claire, “I can teach the child how to get the therapy dog to do tricks and obey commands. The fact that the dog is listening to them gives a wonderful sense of mastery and efficacy to the child.
“The dog's behaviour doesn't have to be perfect. If my dog Shiloh doesn't jump through the hoop, but goes around it instead I can ask the child how they approach obstacles in their life or overcome problems. Or if the dog doesn't listen I can ask the child about how they feel when people don't listen to them... the possibilities are endless!”
Breed of dogs
The most commonly used dog breeds are those that have a natural affiliation for humans, such as Labradors and Golden Retrievers. However, any breed of dog can potentially be used as a therapy dog.
In Canada an organisation called Assistance Dogs for All trains Pomeranians (Toy Poms) to be Psychiatric Service Dogs for people with anxiety disorder. The dogs are trained to pick up physiological arousal in the owner's body (elevated heart rate, increased perspiration) and predict a panic attack. They are trained to lead the person to a quiet place and calm them down.
Toy Poms are a great breed because they are small and “portable”, can go to public places, like movie theatres or malls, and don’t look threatening.
Mixed breeds can make good therapy dogs too. The temperament of the dog is more important than the actual breed. A therapy dog needs to be completely non-aggressive and adaptable to many different situations and environments.
Another factor to consider when choosing a dog breed is the cultural aspect – especially in South Africa. German Shepherds can make incredible therapy dogs but in many communities they carry a negative association – they are perceived as police dogs and therefore people can be afraid of them.
About Claire’s dogs
“I have two dogs,” says Claire. “Shiloh, a Toy Pom, is 18 months old and was bred specifically for me and the work I wanted to use her for. She’s my ‘fun’ dog and loves to do tricks and play; children are drawn to her because she is very joyful.
Claire and Shiloh
“My other dog, Jesse, is a 3.5 year old Australian Shepherd. He’s affectionate, loving and people-driven. I use him as my reading-assistance dog – he’s calm and will lie, ‘listening’ to children who struggle to learn to read, read aloud to him.”
Claire's second therapy dog Jesse
Therapy going forward
Animal-assisted therapy is a dynamic field and international trends are promising.
“The applications are endless and we so underestimate the healing power of animals,” says Claire. “Dogs are being trained as Epilepsy Seizure Alert Dogs, Autism Assistance Dogs, Psychiatric Service Dogs and the evidence, though often anecdotal, is extremely encouraging and heart-warming. We need more formal research to be done in order to further the field here in South Africa.”
Claire will be talking about Animal Assisted Therapy at the upcoming SACAP Festival of Learning in Cape Town.