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Pets as Therapy: Giving Those in Need a Helping Paw

Specially trained pets provide emotional support and assistance to patients who need a helping paw.

Dogs have long been cherished for the unconditional love they give to their human pack. Therapy dogs take this idea a step further. They are trained to provide affection on demand and to be a sort of “security blanket” for their human companion. Some of them provide this support for many people.


Facility Dogs

Perhaps the most common kind of therapy dog is the one that visits patients in hospitals and long-term care homes. These dogs are household pets that have the temperament and training to interact well with all sorts of people. They tolerate petting that is clumsy and over-enthusiastic from children with limited dexterity, they sit on the laps of elderly patients to enjoy cuddles and provide a prompt for chatting. These animals bring much joy to the world.


The Delta Society provides assessment training for people and their pet dogs to provide therapy dog services at hospitals and long-term care homes all over Australia. They also make the connection between the therapy dog team and the prospective facility.


Recently, a pilot project in Canada extended the idea to having a “puppy room” for university students to visit, to lower their stress during exam time. It was a huge success, and might spread to a university here in the near future.


Emotional Support Animals

A more recent development than the facility dogs, emotional support animals provide a personal security blanket for people with certain kinds of emotional and psychiatric disorders. For example, for patients with certain disorders having an emotional support animal with them can help them interact and function comfortably in public.


A.W.A.R.E. Dogs Australia Inc is a charity that provides assistance for people who need any variety of service or support dogs. A.W.A.R.E. stands for “Assisting Wellbeing Ability Recovery & Empowerment.” They help people get an emotional support dog, and they also help deal with the paperwork. For someone who is already struggling with an emotional problem, handling official paperwork can be a nightmare.


Most emotional support animals stay in the home, however, and the only difficulties come up if the person’s housing arrangements are in “no-pet” buildings.


The emotional support pet in the home is a useful part of the treatment of some kinds of depression and anxiety disorders. Their cuddly presence can make the difference between a patient being able to go to school or hold down a job and not being able to get out of bed in the morning.


Autism Dogs

Some autistic people have emotional support dogs who serve as a sort of “shield” between the person and the overwhelming stimulation around them. Being able to hold or cuddle the dog provides an anchor to hold onto, which allows the person to deal with everyday situations which might have previous overwhelmed them.


PTSD Support Dogs

Another specific use of emotional support animals is in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. The dog provides emotional support, of course. Equally important, and less obvious, the dog also provides an anchor in the present reality when the person has flashbacks. In some cases, having the dog as an anchor can even stop the flashbacks from taking hold.


Other Species

Therapy animals are not always dogs. Sometimes cats, horses, pigs, and other pets are trained for therapy purposes. In some parts of the world, instructors at riding stables are training some of their calmest horses for therapy. As the success stories spread, there are people who go to train with experienced handlers overseas and bring the benefits of therapy animals back to their own countries.


Not to be confused with Psychiatric Service Dogs

Therapy dogs are sometimes mistaken for psychiatric service dogs. Psychiatric service dogs are trained to provide a specific service, or combination of services, for their handler. The type of service includes:


  • helping provide stability for the person to walk, if their medication makes them dizzy;
  • waking the person up, if their medication makes them likely to sleep through alarms; and
  • stopping the person from wandering into traffic or train tracks when they are disoriented


This is more along the lines of the conventional service dogs who help to guide the vision impaired and they have the same protections and certifications under the law in all states of Australia.


The MindDog organization is a fairly new group that bridges the gap between emotional support dogs and psychiatric service dogs. They provide dog-training and assistance for mental health patients who would benefit from canine help.


Therapy Pets Give Those In Need a Helping Paw

Therapy Pets make the world a better place. Patients in hospital are happier for the visits of their canine friends, severely depressed people can hold down a job that they wouldn’t have been able to do without their cats’ support, and residents in long-term care have unconditional love from their cuddly therapists. What’s not to like?


Providing these services, however, requires a lot of time and investment. As a result, the organisations mentioned above are always in need of good volunteers (both human and pet) and rely on the generosity of those in the community to continue their good works. Consider lending them your support so they can continue to offer a helping paw to those most in need. To find out more about how pets can be life changing head on over to Love That Pet.


Sebastian Paulin is Director of Operations at Love That Pet.  When not learning about the latest trends in pet supplies you will find Sebastian exploring the great outdoors with his Chocolate Labrador “Cadbury”.

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