By Pat Matuszak

The counselor asked a subtle question now and then, consciously including each person in the group and giving them permission to share thoughts about their goals and difficulties. The atmosphere was remarkably relaxed considering the emotionally charged topics and each patient’s complex situation.

Happy man with two dogsOne of the reasons for the calm was a therapy helper who was not actually speaking but supported the group members with friendly nonverbal contact. He looked encouragingly from person to person as they spoke, walked over to sit by one who was not participating and put his head on a shy person’s knee to draw them in. This might be considered odd behavior for a human therapist, but the trained dog working there as a therapy pet could easily mingle this way with a group to diffuse tension or encourage participation.

Animals used in therapy situations are different from service animals. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, therapy animals aren’t trained to do physical tasks, such as lead the blind or help a person in a wheelchair turn on lights. They “provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities … Therapy animals provide people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.”1

Almost any pet provides some form of therapy to its owner, whether the pet is specifically trained for that purpose or not. Most pet owners praise the benefits of having someone to greet them when they come home from a hard day, someone for them to take care of who takes their mind off of their own troubles and is a natural connector to other people.

How Pets Can Bring People Together

Bringing a friendly pet into a group of people helps everyone connect through playing with it together. Noticing this dynamic, the mental health professionals at Peachford and other facilities have been intentionally adding various animals as therapy helpers to their treatment tools for a wide range of patients.

Dogs are probably the most obvious animal to train as a helper, but almost any animal with a calm personality can serve.2 Pet therapy animals are natural listeners and don’t make judgments. Many patients feel that the animal understands them because they get close to them physically and look intently at people who are talking.

Cats are also natural sympathizers and are usually drawn to people who are speaking. While human members in a group are sometimes thinking of what they will say next, therapy animals are genuinely listening to and enjoying the sound of the human voice.

Horses and ponies with their large, calm eyes seem to transmit a natural empathy that has been shown to help veterans and others with PTSD relax. A tranquil barn setting where someone can brush and learn to work with a friendly horse provides a safe space away from crowds and street noise. Children on the autism spectrum will often talk to horses when they can’t speak to humans, and they usually enjoy physical therapy on horseback much more than in a clinical setting. At-risk youth and patients recovering from substance abuse find the same kind of release and freedom through riding and working with equine therapists. Brushing these gentle giants helps calm humans and eases many kinds of anxiety.3

Most equine therapy horses are carefully trained to be relaxed and calm around patients. But there are exceptions. Wild mustangs are also being rescued from slaughter and trained by prisoners in therapeutic programs who find the challenging task a path to self-discovery and understanding. As a result of learning to trust humans and being trained to ride, the mustangs learn a useful skill, get adopted and are given homes in families around the country. Equine therapists have adopted a saying they borrowed from cowboys of old, and it could apply to any therapy pet: “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a human.”4

Beyond socialization, there is the physical benefit of pet therapy. Brushing or just petting a gentle animal can actually raise the level of calming oxytocin in a human’s blood, lowering blood pressure, relieving depression and treating stress without prescription drugs. Not everyone who would benefit from a pet is in a situation to care for one, however, so therapy animals provided by mental health care centers fill the need without putting the extra burden of caring for pets on patients. Dogs, cats, birds, guinea pigs and miniature ponies are being brought into nursing homes and mental health facilities to diffuse stress, encourage community and create a homelike atmosphere.5

People with a fear of flying are allowed to bring therapy pets on most airlines for emotional support. Most of these pets are dogs or cats, but some passengers have smaller animals, such as turtles and guinea pigs, that help them get through a flight. Some airlines even make room for larger animals, such as miniature ponies.6 Airports are even starting to provide therapy pets for passengers to interact with as they wait to board a plane.7

Therapy pets can also help people deal with anxiety about stressful places, such as doctors’ offices, schools or any location where they feel uncomfortable. A patient may be afraid of crowds or of being alone. Either way, a therapy pet can ease their anxiety. Mental health professionals are embracing this new and creative way to help their patients, and they are finding that many need less assistance from prescription drugs and progress more easily through recovery.


Sources

1 Brennan, Jacquie, and Vinh Nguyen. “Service Animals and Emotional Support Animals: Where are they allowed and under what conditions?” Southwest ADA Center, 2014.

2The Benefits of Therapy Animals.” Redbarn Pet Products, June 17, 2016.

3 Rovner, Julie. “Pet Therapy: How Animals And Humans Heal Each Other.” NPR, March 5, 2012.

4 Kurutz, Steven. “Wild Horses and the Inmates Who ‘Gentle’ Them.” The New York Times, October 5, 2017.

5Therapy Pets and Humans With Mental Health Issues.” Dogtime.com, Accessed December 29, 2017.

6Travel with Emotional Support Animals, Service Animals and Therapy Animals.” PetTravel.com, Accessed December 29, 2017.

7 Rizzo, Cailey. “These Miniature Horses Are Calming Passengers at Cincinnati’s Airport.” Travel + Leisure, May 15, 2017.