If you’ve ever observed a child’s first interaction with a dog or noticed how the simple act of visiting a zoo can instantly turn an adult into a kid again, you can probably understand why animals would make a very effective partner in a therapy program. That’s exactly the concept behind Animal Assisted Therapy, which is the practice of using animals as a form of patient treatment. Almost any type of animal can be used for this kind of therapy, from dogs and cats to cows and dolphins!
So how (and why) does Animal Assisted Therapy work? Usually, the goal is to improve the patient’s social skills, emotional functions, and/or motor skills and the animal acts as a very important motivating factor — during human-dog interactions, our brains, and similarly the brains of animals, are flooded with a rush of oxytocin, a very important hormone known as the “neurochemical of love”, and traditionally associated with the nurturing of one’s offspring. It’s no wonder that interacting with an animal in a clinical setting has been shown to reduce stress, improve mood, reduce blood pressure, reduce presence of pain, motivate a patient to engage in physical activity, increase level of trust with the doctor who brings the animal into the session, and the list goes on!
We have animals in our lives for so many different reasons: they comfort us, show us unconditional love, help us make a living, protect us, make us laugh, and sometimes even help us heal. So next time your dog needs to go on a walk or goes through the garbage, take a moment and remember all of the incredible things our animals do for us. I think we owe them a few.
By Mary Tully, Professional Animal Behaviorist