The Healing Touch

Exploring the therapeutic benefits of animals

Jeff Amberg

On Sept. 28, 2016, the unthinkable happened in the small area of Townville, South Carolina: a shooting at Townville Elementary School. The shooting left two students and one teacher injured, and one 6-year-old boy dead. Returning to school after such a traumatic event would naturally be daunting for children. So what did the school do? They lined up 20 pet therapy dogs from SC Dogs Therapy Group to greet the children when they arrived on the bus that first morning back to class. 

We were standing there when the buses arrived,” describes Trish Carter, a volunteer at SC Dogs, who has been using her pets for therapy visits for decades. “The children were really scared and didn’t want to get off the bus, then the kids saw the dogs. Then they gleefully rushed to get out of the bus.”

The dogs went to the classrooms with the children and accompanied them to the playground for recess. “The children were just thrilled by the dogs,” says Trish. “It just seemed to take the edge off. It helped them take their minds off the fear and anxiety.”

The concept of using animals to help humans cope with difficult or traumatic circumstances is not a new notion. In fact, using animals to help the mentally ill dates back to the 18th century, while the modern concept was taken up again in the 1960s by child psychotherapist Boris M. Levinson. With his book Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy, Levinson is considered the father of modern animal-assisted interventions. Since then, the idea of animal-assisted therapy and pet therapy has grown in a variety of fields to help humans cope with a vast array of challenges.

Jennifer Rogers, executive director of Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services, an organization that trains dogs for animal-assisted intervention, service dogs, and animal-assisted therapy in Columbia, notes the difference between animal-assisted therapy and pet therapy is important. “‘Pet-visiting animals’ is the term used when someone has their own pet take some tests, and that pet visits hospitals, schools, or other places to let people interact with them,” she explains. 

Animal-assisted interventions and animal-assisted therapy are distinguished from “pet therapy” by the fact that most animals used by organizations such as PAALS are trained for multiple years by professionals and learn specific skill sets to assist humans. “So when we talk about a ‘therapy dog,’ that’s when a dog is literally working either with a trained therapist or in conjunction with a trained therapist,” says Jennifer. The terms are not used interchangeably and shouldn’t be confused with each other. 

According to Phyllis Beasley, a certified dog trainer and owner of Praise Dog! Training, LLC, and registered handler of therapy dogs since 2001, dogs considered for therapy work should master basic obedience skills and manners; furthermore, a therapy dog needs to have the proper aptitude and desire to interact with all kinds of people. 

Whether officially trained for therapy work or not, animals are proven to help people of all ages and backgrounds cope. Phyllis recalls an instance in which her therapy dog, Gideon, helped counsel a young girl at Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter. “This young girl was a little lost soul,” Phyllis shares. “She found special solace with Gideon. Gideon would lean in her lap, and she would talk to him.” As a registered therapy dog handler, Phyllis tries to create an atmosphere of comfort and acceptance, which helps the patient feel a true one-on-one connection with the dog. After one therapy session, the young girl at Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter confided in Phyllis, “I love Gideon. You can tell your secrets to dogs, and they won’t tell anyone.”

Animal-assisted therapy also provides solutions for health problems. Take mental health in adolescents, for example. Worldwide, 10 to 20 percent of children and adolescents suffer from mental disorders, according to the World Health Organization. It’s a serious issue facing the youth today as suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people. With this sobering knowledge, the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society undertook a study of animal-assisted interventions in adolescent mental health to see if animals could help adolescents with mental illness in the context of professional therapy. 

Many therapeutic programs use animals for emotional and social support. They provide a calming effect on children, as well as a valuable tool for learning and attaching in healthy ways. Through its study, CIAS concluded that animals increase an adolescent’s ability to cope with anxiety during therapy, help build a rapport between the child and therapist, improve the child’s behavior outside of therapy and provide learning experiences for adolescents. 

These ideas have been confirmed for those who have autism as well. Researchers from the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction found that autistic children who have pets or are in classrooms that incorporate animals into their environment develop more confidence and social skills. 

Jennifer relates the story of one young girl with autism whose service dog helped her finally learn to fall asleep in her own bed. “She hadn’t ever slept in her own bed in 13 years; now this dog keeps her in bed at night, giving her assurance and security,” she describes. 

If animals can help children and adolescents navigate life, adults can certainly benefit greatly, too. Jennifer relates emotional stories of inmates who have worked with assistance dogs in training and have seen life change for the better. PAALS sponsors a program called Prison PAALS in which their puppies go into prisons, where the inmates learn to train the dog to be an assistance dog for individuals in need of one in the future. 

“I’ve had inmates tell me that they’re going to be better parents and spouses –– and that they’re going to stay out of trouble –– because the animals showed them how to love and care again,” says Jennifer. “I’ve had guys tell me that these dogs gave them a meaning in their life for the first time.” 

PAALS teaches people to train their dogs using positive reinforcement behavior modifications. “We’re not just teaching them about dogs; we’re teaching about the ‘punishers’ in their own environments, and how have they been affected by them. We ask, ‘What are the things that are rewards for you, and how do they work for you? Why did that dog not come to you when you used that tone of voice?’” says Jennifer. “So it can be very symbolic for people, and it can really help them learn about themselves and what doesn’t work well in their relationships.”

Soldiers struggling from post-traumatic stress disorder can learn a lot from animals as well. “Things that they had been told by therapists for years had not sunk in the way that it did when they saw the dog respond to them,” says Jennifer. “They didn’t realize they sounded scary when they were talking to the dog; they didn’t realize the kind of body language that they were using.” 

While PAALS works exclusively with canines, horses also help people learn what impact their emotions, actions, and attitudes are having on their environment. Because horses are keenly sensitive creatures, they are literally able to mirror a person’s emotions and interior world; horses react strongly to often ignored or overlooked emotions. If someone is angry, depressed, fearful, or unconfident, the horse can pick up on that and will respond toward that emotion — and a person can learn valuable lessons about identifying underlying feelings, communication, confidence, and setting boundaries, all within the context of an equine-assisted therapy program. 

While animals can offer benefits to anyone seeking personal healing and growth, they also offer enormous health benefits, too. Cats, for example, have been proven to lower an owner’s chance of having a heart attack by 30 percent, according to a study done by the University of Minnesota’s Stroke Institute in Minneapolis. The theory is that cats are naturally lap animals and that the actual act of petting generally lowers blood pressure. A cat’s purr is actually proven to be within the medically therapeutic range of 25 to 150 hertz — a frequency scientifically proven to help in the healing of bones, wounds, muscles, and tendons. 

“I’ve had several cats,” says Trish. “I would put one cat, a Siamese, on a leash, and she’d walk around and sit on people’s laps. She was a therapy cat for several years and did wonders.” 

Animals help improve people’s moods because interacting with them actually releases the hormone oxytocin, which makes people feel content and happy, according to a study done by Uppsala University in Sweden. In fact, it’s been proven that oxytocin levels rise in both humans and animals during interactions of petting and other friendly activities. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, which is what’s so beautiful about it.

Of course pet therapy animals don’t realize the impact they have on folks as they are visiting with patients, family, or staff,” says Kathy Perrich, who has two pet therapy dogs and has been visiting local medical centers and schools for more than 10 years. She also runs a public service website to help people connect with the pet therapy community in the Columbia area. “On our pet therapy visits, we have watched folks who are fearful or stressed out begin to relax and refocus their energy on petting the dog. It’s good for them, and it’s good for the dog!”

While scientific research has gone into the study of animal-human bonds, the ultimate answer as to why something so special can happen between an animal and a human still seems somewhat elusive. “I think you could ask the same question about any relationship,” says Jennifer. “Why is there an emotional connection there?”

Trish suggests an additional reason. “I think it’s unconditional, nonjudgmental caring and love,” she says. “An animal will go and put their head on somebody’s lap or sit on somebody’s lap and just look at them. And there’s no judgment. They aren’t going to think somebody is different because they’re speaking or acting in a funny way or because they’ve had a stroke.”

Sometimes, it seems, the deepest kind of comfort only comes from a furry friend. 

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