Dogs are our best friends, and for good reason! No matter what kind of day you’ve had or how tough things get at work, they’re always there. But aside from this innate loyalty, dogs can also provide another kind of assistance in a therapeutic setting.
Experts use this type of therapy to help people with Alzheimer’s disease, disabilities, depression, and even autism. Animal assisted therapy has a multitude of physical, psychological, and social benefits. Let’s see what they are!
Who can benefit from Animal Assisted Therapy?
Dogs are usually the animal of choice in animal assisted therapy. Studies show that they help improve health and well-being in patients.
We should make clear that animal assisted therapy is a complement to clinical therapy. It isn’t a substitute or alternative to conventional treatment. Likewise, health or educational professionals have to supervise any type of therapy. Interdisciplinary work is key for animal assisted therapy to be successful and have good results.
Therapists utilize this type of therapy to treat people with a wide variety of problems. They may include emotional and behavioral disorders like ADHD, stress, anxiety, or depression. Also included are addiction and mental or neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s. AAT can also be useful to treat disorders on the autism spectrum, sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS, and to assist the elderly.
Two types of therapy dogs
Therapists look for dogs who meet certain requirements or have specific traits. They want dogs who are agile and active, with obedient, patient, and friendly temperaments. Once they make it through that initial filter, then they can start training to be therapy dogs.
Therapists differentiate between two different types of therapy dogs, depending on the goal of therapy:
- Assistance dogs: trainers prepare these dogs to help people with specific needs. For example, guide dogs for the blind or deaf or support dogs for people with disabilities.
- Therapy dogs: these dogs are more like therapist’s assistants or “co-therapists.” Therapists use them to have better and more effective interactions with patients. Their work may focus on the elderly, autistic children, or people with other types of psychological disorders.
The many psychological and emotional benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy
For people with brain injuries, working with therapy dogs can be very motivating. Interacting with animals serves as an incentive and a way to keep them active. It speeds up their rehabilitation. Feeding the dogs or doing activities with them is a great form of mental stimulation. At the same time, it improves their attention spans.
In addition, it helps with loneliness. People consider dogs to be man’s best friend because they accept us and love us unconditionally. Just as we are. That’s why they are natural therapists. They are the perfect medicine for anxiety, depression, and stress.
Many patients — and not just animal lovers — find their company very pleasant. Normally, people would rather recover alongside another living creature instead of just a lifeless exercise machine.
In addition, the bond that forms between dogs and people goes beyond just mutual affection. Many people see it as similar to the bond that forms between a mother and her baby. As a result of all these benefits, therapy dogs improve the overall mood of patients.
Physical and social benefits
Animal assisted therapy also increases physical activity in patients. Playing with them and doing stretching or walking exercises will strengthen their muscles, bones, and joints. It also helps with their vestibular system (balance) and increases propioception.
The list of benefits goes on. Animal assisted therapy can improve fine and gross motor skills and coordination. That’s because it stimulates all the patient’s senses, from sight to hearing to touch. Activities like petting, feeding, or brushing the dog improves control of certain movements, especially in the hands and arms.
For all those reasons, in addition to serving as a communication “bridge” between therapist and patient, therapy dogs encourage learning through play. They encourage social contact and the development of social skills. They also improve things like empathy, respect, communication, cooperation, and teamwork.
The big advantage: versatility
Therapists can use AAT with dogs in a group or individual setting. It really depends on the needs of each patient and the best way to approach the disability, disorder, or condition of the patient.
Also, unlike some therapies that you can only do in a specialized center, animal assisted therapy can be done in the patient’s home. People of any age can benefit from this personalized attention, from children to the elderly.
Besides being a favorite of children and adults, dogs have a healing power. Using them as a complement to therapy is beneficial on all levels. This is why experts are incorporating animals into therapy at increasing rates and seeing promising results.