The term animal assisted therapy is to be distinguished from the more familiar practice of animal assisted activities, which refers generally to pet visitation at hospitals and residential care facilities.
Animal Assisted Therapy is part of a formal and carefully designed treatment program with specific and measurable objectives that matches one animal to one patient. Under the guidance of a trained medical professional, patients with severe mental and/or physical disabilities are encouraged to interact with a therapy dog under the supervision of a trained dog handler.
The patient's interaction with the dog is increased gradually. Initially, the patient may merely observe the dog or touch it. As the patient becomes more responsive and confident, activities may include brushing, attaching collars and even walking the dog. Progress records are maintained as milestones are met and exceeded.
Studies have shown that therapy pets motivate people to participate in therapeutic interactions. Dogs are not judgmental, they don't hassle or pressure their partner and they have endless patience. Further, simply because they are animals and require care, the patient grooming them or walking them is made to feel useful.
The benefits and expectations of animal assisted activities, or pet visits, vary according to the needs and conditions of the patients being visited. Pet visits are less formal; they do not follow a particular treatment plan or schedule and they are not usually set up on a one pet to one patient scenario.
Pet visits are common to hospitals, assisted living homes and nursing homes. They are often nothing more than a way to entertain people or to change their routine and brighten their day.
On the other hand, when visited by a pet some people who have basically shut themselves off from human interaction will begin to work their way back to reality. Apparently the pet stirs emotions in them that have been lying dormant. Examples have been given where patients who have not spoken a word in over a year will begin to talk to the visiting dog.
Now that pet therapy has become a proven and documented reality, institutions are beginning to capitalize on this phenomenon with the "resident pet." This term refers to a cat or a dog that becomes a permanent resident of a particular facility and is usually given free run of the place.
Each resident benefits from a proprietary interest in the animal and looks forward to assisting in its care. In some cases, a full course of therapy has been designed around the care and feeding of a resident pet. The residents meet to discuss what must be done and develop their own charts and schedules to accommodate the pet's needs. However, staff must be constantly on the alert to avoid problems of jealousy and feuds over the pet's affections.
The attributes and characteristics that comprise a good visiting dog or therapy dog have more to do with temperament than training. Not to say that the dog will not need training in basic obedience, but that is normally sufficient except in extraordinary situations.
Patients and residents react to the dogs in a variety of ways. Some are effusive, some impulsive and others are shy. Therefore, the dogs must be ready for anything. It surely wouldn't do for a dog to lunge away or growl if a patient makes a loud noise or reaches for them abruptly. When selecting a dog for these purposes you would not necessarily want an animal that is high strung or one that is too laid back to get up and socialize.
Numerous studies have documented the benefits of pet therapy. Pets have been used in treating AIDS patients, cancer patients, the elderly and the mentally ill. One study determined that petting a dog can lower blood pressure and another found that pets can reduce stress related illnesses.
A study at City Hospital in New York noted that heart patients who owned pets lived longer than those without pets. Owning a pet was found to be more significant to long term survival than the presence of even a spouse or friends.
Pets make us feel good. They comfort us, allow us to be ourselves and give those of us that need it a reason for living.