Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is the use of certified therapy animals as part of the therapeutic treatment. Animal assisted therapy involves therapy dogs, cats and various other pets and has been described as a significant part of treatment for people who are physically, socially, emotionally or cognitively challenged, especially children and the elderly.
Therapy dogs are by far the most commonly used animals in treatment tapping into the unique bond they share with humans. These pets are trained to provide affection, comfort and love to people in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices, retirement homes and disaster areas. They are also used in treating people with anxiety disorders or autism.
Therapy dogs are often mistaken for service dogs but in some cases, they can be both depending on the nature of organization working with them.
Commonly Used Breeds
The most common breeds used as therapy dogs include Labradors and Golden Retrievers. A dog doesn’t have to be of certain size or breed for qualifying as a therapy dog. The main factor important for qualification is its temperament. The dog has to be friendly and patient in any given situation and should be okay with being petted and cuddled with strangers too.
Requirements for Therapy Dogs
Many organisations provide evaluation and registration for dogs to be used in therapy procedures. Typical tests are conducted to ensure that a dog can handle sudden loud and strange noises and can walk on unfamiliar surfaces comfortably. They also ensure that the dog is not frightened by people with canes, wheelchairs and unusual personalities and should get along with children and the elderly.
Many institutions have requirements for therapy dogs and can limit and prohibit access under certain conditions. U.S. based organization named Therapy Dogs International (TDI) bans the use of service dogs in their therapy programs. In Canada, St. John Ambulance provides therapy dog certification. In the UK, Therapy Dogs Nationwide provides visiting dogs to establishments where they are otherwise not available.
Uses of Therapy Dogs
The first known systematic use of therapy dogs is attributed to Elaine Smith who worked as a registered nurse. Smith started a program for training dogs to visit institutions in 1976 and since then their demand has been growing significantly in hospitals and nursing homes. Research suggests that the use of therapy pets has helped the patients to recover sooner.
Therapy dogs are used in child care centers and retirement homes to help people participate in physical activities, overcome anxiety disorders and also help to encourage them to achieve their cognitive and social goals. The use of these pet dogs is increasing in disaster areas where they help people to relief stress.
Some schools, colleges and universities in the U.S. bring therapy dogs inside their premises to help students overcome their stress. These events often takes place and are often referred as “Therapy Fluffies” which gives the students and even teachers and staffs to relax with the certified dogs.
Programs such as the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) which promote literacy and communication skills uses therapy dogs to encourage students to read aloud not caring about them being judged. It has been proven that the academic performance and children’s enthusiasm for reading has increased with the help of therapeutic dogs, especially in children with special education.