Philippa Willitts finds out about the therapeutic role that animals can play in helping people overcome their physical and psychological difficulties…
Most people will be familiar with how assistance dogs can help disabled people carry out daily activities – but there is also a much wider group of animals that are improving people’s lives via a unique form of therapy.
From dogs and cats, to horses and dolphins, disabled people around the world are learning to grow in confidence, increase their pain tolerance, reduce their stress levels and more by building therapeutic relationships with animals. Because people need to change their demeanour and behaviour to engage appropriately with an animal, this can teach better social and interpersonal skills to those who may normally struggle with these kinds of interactions.
Freud believed that dogs helped his patients to relax during therapy sessions. More recently, celebrity fashion expert Gok Wan has credited his pet dog with helping him to overcome his obsessive-compulsive disorder. So what is animal therapy, what is it used for, and why is it growing in popularity?
It was the ancient Greeks who first identified the therapeutic significance of horses. In the centuries since, cultures throughout the world have taken advantage of their unique characteristics to ease everything from lack of confidence to neurological problems. The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGLA) has trained 1500 equine therapists in the UK, and requests for this kind of help are continuing to grow.
Equus Solutions is a Cornwall-based organisation that sees ‘Treatment Teams’ of horses and qualified therapists working with individuals who have mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating disorders. The therapy does not involve riding the horse, but rather careful interactions with the therapist and the animal in a way that allows for learning and emotional growth.
The Treatment Team recreates difficult issues in a client’s life; through interacting with the horse and building a relationship, the client is then able to address the thoughts and belief systems that may be preventing them leaving a full and happy life. Clients typically find that they learn a lot about themselves and are able to improve their ability to process thoughts and emotions. This in turn can then help them start to deal with tricky patterns and learned behaviours that might be limiting their lives.
Horses have an astounding ability to mirror these emotional and complex feelings, which is why clients of equine-assisted therapy (EAT) can make such rapid progress. When supported by the combination of a skilled therapist and a sensitive but powerful animal, clients have found that they can learn new ways of managing their difficulties and improving the way they communicate with others.
EAT isn’t the only form of horse-based therapy that’s available. Therapeutic riding is also becoming increasingly popular in the UK, and can benefit disabled children – with conditions ranging from cerebral palsy to spinal cord injuries and sensory impairments – by helping to improve their balance, posture, co-ordination, concentration and confidence.
Therapeutic riding is different from typical horse riding activities, in that it is geared specifically towards the requirements of disabled clients. Activities are chosen and adapted so as to benefit the individual as much as possible. Whether it’s somebody wanting to strengthen or stretch particular muscles or improve their general coordination, the circumstances of each individual can be catered for.
Confidence boosts are common to many forms of animal therapy. Being able to work with and guide an animal as large as a horse – something that’s only possible by speaking clearly and assertively so that it follows your instructions – can have a dramatic impact on a person’s self-esteem. Over time, there’s a good chance that this improved confidence will then spread to other areas of the person’s life.
Assistance dogs can alert their users to an impending seizure, help blind people safely navigate busy road crossings and even unload washing machines – but dogs and cats are also used in therapeutic work with disabled people, where they provide positive interactions that can be playful, calming and loving.
For children with physical impairments, physiotherapy can often feel frustrating and painful. If, however, they can engage in gentle play with a dog or cat, they may well find themselves increasing their movement and being prompted to try new things in a fun way feels less like hard work. Similarly, for a disabled child who might feel somewhat powerless in their daily life, learning how to issue commands to an obedient, patient and loving dog can provide a real boost to their self-confidence.
Used in this way, animal therapy can take pressure off children and enable them to enjoy time with a friendly and well-trained animal – while simultaneously giving them innumerable benefits to their health and wellbeing. Jennifer Dubois, from the Aylesbury-based organisation Pets As Therapy, explains that, “Studies have shown that the use of pets as therapy can result in significant physical and psychological improvements. They can include anything from an increase in pain tolerance to a reduction in stress and lowered blood pressure. Of course, it also often brings smiles to the patients’ faces.”
Pets As Therapy recruits volunteer pet owners, who are willing to have their dogs and cats be carefully assessed for potential use in visits to hospitals, hospices, care homes and special educational facilities. By stroking and talking to those friendly pets that get approved – and through experiencing their calming, non-judgemental nature – patients and pupils are able to shed their self-consciousness and develop their confidence levels.
The charity also helps children with learning difficulties to improve their reading skills. Pets As Therapy’s ‘Read2Dogs scheme’ encourages kids to read out loud to dogs rather than people, which makes them less worried about making mistakes. Because they feel less judged, their skills and abilities often improve as a result.
Another of the charity’s programmes is intended for stroke survivors, who are encouraged to improve their motor skills by brushing dogs’ fur and throwing balls for them to fetch. In both projects, the uncanny ability of dogs to offer unconditional love means that service users can experience the animals’ affection while at the same building up their skills and confidence.
Call of the wild
The therapeutic effects of swimming with dolphins are well documented, with participants usually speaking of happy, joyful feelings when interacting with these intelligent and social animals. As well as being a thoroughly enjoyable activity, of course, dolphin therapy also involves plenty of physical exercise, which can have multiple benefits for a disabled person’s strength and flexibility.
And it’s not just dogs, horses, cats, and dolphins that can be used in therapeutic settings – birds have also been used to help patients manage problems with their memory. As part of a pet therapy programme at a care home in Connecticut, USA, for example, a cockatoo is brought to the home’s memory care unit on a bi-monthly basis. The visits provide residents with a diverting distraction, but also with opportunities to interact with an inquisitive and friendly animal in a way that helps to relieve stress and increase their sense of wellbeing.
Research has shown that children who had lost a parent were helped in dealing with their bereavement by undergoing therapy that involved the use reptiles. The study observed 40 12-year-old girls, half whom received animal-assisted support and displayed an improved ability to cope with their emotions as a result, with fewer instances of withdrawal, aggression and other psychological symptoms.
The unconditional affection of an enthusiastic dog; the dignified determination of a proud horse; the cuddly cuteness of a fluffy guinea pig – all can make a significant difference to the lives of people who are disabled, have mental health problems or autistic spectrum disorders, or who are dealing with trauma and distress. The benefits go far deeper than what could be expected from pet ownership – the animals form part of a profound therapeutic process that’s capable of leading to lasting changes among clients.
When carried out with appropriate skills and care, animal therapy can lead to major improvements to an individual’s physical and emotional state, muscle strength, mobility, co-ordination and motor control.
Equine-assisted therapy can help people to…
– Improve their teamwork skills
– Carry out tasks with increased confidence
– Become more assertive
– Develop the courage to face their fears
– Boost their sense of self-esteem
Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (UK)
Pets As Therapy
01844 345 445