Animals as Therapy
Kids and pets just go together
Have you ever been feeling out of sorts and been cheered up and made to laugh by your dog or cat? Or your bird, horse, goat, pig, etc? The most common pets we seem to rely on to cheer us up seem to be dogs or cats, but I have some fond memories of loving affectionate goats that brightened many a day for me as a child. For some people I know, their horse or horses seem to sense their emotions and offer comfort in their own way. This has been going on as long as people and animals have shared the earth, but only recently have those in the field of psychology started to officially recognize these benefits.
I was amazed when my twin girls were in preschool to find that one of their beloved "teachers" had 4 legs and a tail. He was a golden retriever by the name of Mr T. The kids adored him, looking forward to Tuesdays because that was when Mr T would be "teaching" and if they were very good they would be allowed to brush him with a special brush. Now I should explain that this preschool is an inclusive preschool, meaning that special needs children are placed with an equal number of their normally developing peers. Some of these children had some strong behavor problems ranging from tantrums to violent outbursts and on any given day it was not uncommon to witness at least a few of these storms. The point I am making is that on Tuesdays (when the golden retriever was there), these were very different children. They were calm, there was less crying and much more sharing and remembering to use their words. Granted, I was only there to drop off and pick up my girls, but even in that short space of time I observed these differences.
My girls are in first grade now and Mr T is still in preschool, but they will never forget him and still talk of him from time to time. In the elementary school were they now attend, the school psychologist brings in her two golden retrievers almost every day. Some of these kids won't even talk to the teachers or the psychologist, but these dogs are able to bring out the inner chatterbox. My girls will stop by the room to "talk to the dogs" when they are having a rough day. Why do they relate better to an animal than to an adult human? Who knows, perhaps the dogs are less intimidating. I have felt the same way at times.
I have been mentioning dogs for the most part, but we also have two cats that have allowed themselves to be dressed up, sang to, read to, picked up and hauled around in some of the most undignified ways without a single complaint or a scratch. Now if an adult would attempt any of those things they would certainly be scratched or bitten immediately. Its as though these cats seem to know that the kids don't know better so they are much more tolerant with them. In the same way, animals seem to have a special bond with children with disabilities. And likewise, the special needs children are (as I previously mentioned) calmed and drawn out by animals. I don't know all the science behind it, but I have read that animals can actually lower a person's blood pressure, though I am sure they could also spike it as well if they were so inclined so you have to be careful to match up the breed and temperament of the animal with the personality of the owner.
Characteristics to look for in a therapy animal
Just how are therapy animals chosen? The process of becoming a therapy animal is quite involved as the animal must meet certain criteria before even being considered for the training program. The tempermant of the animal is looked at first, it cannot be in any way agressive or high strung. The animal must be well socialized, not shy around strangers and not be excited by other dogs or large crowds. Once an animal is selected for a therapy program, they will be put through extensive training, exposing them to loud noises, crowds and different people. If you are interested in finding out more about therapy animals or therapy dogs in particular, you can check out www.tdi-dog.org.
You may want to find out how to become a handler for a therapy dog or you may be looking for a companion animal for yourself. Therapy dogs international can help with either one, just browse their website. While a therapy animal is not going to grab a pen and paper and start asking "Now how do YOU feel about that?". They are also not going to charge you $100 an hour and they will really listen and love you without ever judging you or giving you bad advice. Do you have or know someone that has a therapy animal? Does your ordinary house pet, dog, cat, or other, help cheer you up when you are down? If so, please share in the comments below. I would love to hear about your special animal.