Animal-assisted therapy, at its most basic, is about animals and humans working together to improve the lives of humans. Dogs and cats are often used in therapeutic work, but guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, horses, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, pot-bellied pigs and birds can all be used in therapy work. There are many ways that animals can be included such as:
Interactions with a therapy animal helps improve a patient's physical, mental, emotional and social state, which in turn helps them better engage and participate in the process of their treatment and recovery. Research suggests that 20 minutes with a therapy dog has a significant reduction in stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and aldosterone and an increase in “health inducing and social inducing” hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins. The AAT interaction often allows opportunities to build trust and stronger relationships between patient and professional (in our case tutor and student).
AAT dogs are particularly good at drawing out the most isolated personality, helping them to overcome feelings of emotional numbness and an inability to connect to others. Interacting with a dog, and even giving them obedience commands and doing simple exercises gets the individual to think about interactions in a new way. Helps them to practice being assertive, but not aggressive and look for non verbal communication cues. When the individual does interact with the dog they receive positive feelings when the communication goes well. Dogs are happy to receive the smallest interaction from us, and they encourage us with doe-eyes, rubs, licks and waggy tails to keep that interaction going.
When a professional includes an animal into their therapeutic practice, they should do so with certain goals in mind, for example, they may incorporate the use of a dog to explore and draw out issues of anger or attachment. Physical therapists may use handling of a small animal or grooming a horse in a motor-skills program, or dog walking in a fitness or strength-training program. In cases of PTSD it is important that the needs of the entire family are taken into account when helping a member of the family recover from PTSD. In this way AAT may assist in the recovery of the individual with PTSD as well as support for other members of their family.
AAT animals are not service animals. There are certain differences between Animal Assisted Therapy Animals, Service Animals and Companion animals. Service animals, for example, live with owners who have physical and emotional disabilities and are specifically trained (and usually funded) to assist them solely with daily living. In contrast, therapy animals work with professionals and clients.
In order to become an AAT certified dog in Australia the handler and dog must go through a course such as Lead the Way or Delta Therapy Dogs. Both courses train the handler in AAT interventions as well as the dog for suitability. The AAT dog must also meet stringent health checks to have access to hospitals, schools and nursing homes.
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