Animal Jobs Series: Therapy Dogs
To every dog-owning household, a canine companion is a valued member of the family, simultaneously dependent and generously loving. Some of those wonderful dogs take their warm, wonderful personalities and give to their community as therapy dogs.
These dogs are welcome guests at institutions and private homes when they are invited to share their most valued traits: calmness, affection, tactile stimulation, motivation, physical and emotional interaction, to name a few. To understand what a therapy dog is, it is often helpful to start off defining what a therapy dog is not. Therapy dogs are not service dogs.
Service animals are animals that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities such as guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure or performing other special tasks. Service animals are working animals, not pets.
Therapy animals, in contrast, are usually the personal pets of their owners and handlers and work with their handlers when acting in a supportive (emotional, mental, physical) capacity with another person. Therapy animals are not exempt from health regulations that deny animals entrance into certain environments (schools, restaurants, markets), whereas service animals are usually permitted.
To become a therapy dog, there is an assessment process that establishes both the dog's qualifications and the owner's commitment to working as volunteering partners in their community. PAT (Pets as Therapy) is a UK charity that tests and registers therapy dogs and their handlers, qualifying both to visit nursing homes, hospitals and wherever therapy dogs are needed and welcomed. All pets, both dogs and cats, are assessed for their temperament, sociability and confidence. They will be tested on sudden noises and how they react when they are stroked or groomed. PAT dogs must have gone through puppyhood in order to have settled down from their puppy exuberance. In addition to passing the tests and evaluations, PAT dogs must also be healthy, wormed and treated for fleas. Currently there are 4500 PAT dogs in the UK and just over 100 cats. Every year, nearly 7 million people are visited by PAT dogs and cats in the UK!
If it seems like a lot of fuss just to permit a dog to sit beside a patient with Alzheimer's and be petted, the truth is that the process is really designed to minimise risk to the patient or recipient of the dog's affection as well as to the dog itself. A therapy dog that is disruptive, damages, intimidates, actually harms an individual or destroys property is of no benefit to the audience they aim to work with.
Often intended to introduce much needed calm and tranquility, it is of the utmost importance that a dog has the right temperament and training to be a therapy animal, just as bedside manner and knowledge are critical to a doctor's success in treating a patient. The reality is that hospitals and nursing homes have a lot of extra stimulation that dogs are particularly sensitive to (smells and sounds are the most obvious) and that can result in anxiety in a dog that is normally very calm.
People with disabilities and young children can make spontaneous movements that can startle a dog, producing a response you might not have been able to predict.
Research has shown that there are huge benefits for people and even patients with the most serious dementia can react to a therapy animal. It has also been shown that it does not matter if the person has previously owned a pet or not, the benefits are the same. For senior citizens, young children and people with a wide range of emotional, physical or mental challenges, a therapy dog can bring a great deal of peace to a difficult or lonely afternoon, and can lead to progress even within a larger course of treatment. Ideally, the work should be rewarding and fun for the dog as well.
Therapy dogs provide individuals, young and old, with much-needed kindness and comfort that can make a difference on a physiological level. If you think your dog is not cut out for a life of therapy work, take heart. Just sitting with a dog has valuable health benefits. An article published in the International Journal of Psychology (2004) revealed the results of a test measuring the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy for relieving anxiety during a standardised laboratory stress task - having to do maths.
The researchers found that 'the beneficial effect of therapy dogs on anxiety is robust'. So even if your dog cannot serve your community as a therapy dog and even if you don't panic at the thought of long division, there is no question that you are still benefiting from daily doses of invaluable treatment at the hands or paws of your pet.
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