Let’s fly away for a moment together and spy into the life of Jeremy. He’s 6 years old, he has red hair and freckles and the most endearing smile you have ever seen. Oh yeah and one more thing…he has cancer. Every week he goes to the hospital with his mom for treatments. After 3 surgeries the prognosis is still not good. Yet, through it all, you can’t pass by this little boy without a smile on your face and warmth in your heart.
Today Jeremy is very tired and his smile has lost its brilliancy. He cries as his mom brings him to the hospital. It’s to say the least, a bad day for Jeremy. Today he doesn’t smile or cooperate. The nurses and doctors struggle with him and his mom can only but hold back her tears at the scene. All of the sudden, Jeremy is still and his eyes start to sparkle. He just spotted Rover walking in! Arms extended Jeremy soon gets a big hug and kiss from his furry friend. Rover has helped Jeremy before in those rough moments and here he is back again and will faithfully stay by Jeremy until the treatment and tests are over.
Rover isn’t Jeremy’s dog and it’s not just any animal that is allowed in the hospital. But thanks to established programs like zoo/pet therapy and animal-assisted therapy, this little boy was able to make it through the day with a smile back on his face.
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Animals and Therapy- A Magical Combination
If you are one of those people who cannot pass by a pet store without stopping and saying hello to the playing puppies or kittens in the window, then you are living proof of effects animals have on us. Pet therapy works on the same basic principles of animal/human natural bonds. It uses the laws of nature to the advantage of those who are suffering.
Beyond simple nature, those who establish these programs also put in long hours of effort and research to match the perfect animal to every human or home in need. Of course we are not saying that a dog, rabbit or cat will make the whole world healthy again. However, reports prove that in 91% of animal-assisted cases, there have been marked improvements in both mental and physical conditions.
For over 30 years now more and more people have become aware of the rare and beautiful opportunity to share hope, love and joy to ill and isolated people with their pets. You may even want to have a part in these programs yourself with your friendly pet. Why? Let’s have a look at the reasons.
Why is AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) so Amazing!?
Let’s suppose you do decide to participate in a pet therapy program. Excellent! Here we go… Today your dog is groomed, ready and eager to meet new people. Your first patients await you in a nearby home for the elderly. It’s hard to imagine what to expect for the first meeting between strangers, but your dog trails on forward without looking back. He moves in close to the first person sitting in the living room watching TV rather uninterested. Just one nudge of the nose on her hand and she turns to greet her new friend with a pat on the head and a ‘why hello there!’. One after another your dog formally greets everyone with a wet nosed nudge or simply laying his head on their lap. You can see magic in the air fill this lifeless room. A smile of happiness and satisfaction automatically creeps to your lips. The smile is completely uncontrollable; you’ve just witnessed nothing short of a miracle!
AAT programs mean just that! Making miracles happen. Why can we say this? Not only are people benefited by happy companionship but also they are helped in areas of socialization, healing and even rehabilitation! It is true that these kinds of improvements or results are hard to measure since the highest benefits are purely emotional or psychological. Yet anyone participating in such programs will tell you, the results are real!
For example, lets look at why pet assisted therapy works in the following surprising cases:
Autism- therapy dogs are often used in this case to help promote healthy social interaction. Children suffering from autism benefit so much from AAT. Studies show they become more talkative, less aggressive and smile more with these programs! This, for sure helps ease the burden on the family and all around everyone is happier.
Epilepsy- Alert dogs are so special for patients suffering from epilepsy. Some dogs can determine when a seizure is coming a few minutes before it hits and alert others to it. Also these trained dogs protect the patient before and during the seizure from injury, staying faithfully by their side during the process. They effectively bring companionship and emotional support to these special patients.
Alzheimer’s- Unfortunately for millions around the world, old age comes with dementia or eventual Alzheimer’s. It is a gradual and unpredictable state in which caretakers have a hard time helping them without taking away their independence. Trained dogs can help lift a big load during this time. They are trained to guide their ‘human’ home if he or she doesn’t remember how to get back. Also, they are trained on routine, so they help the patient through their daily routine in case they forget to wash or eat. Dogs help them feel secure and independent, not to mention they always have a friendly companion.
- Terminal patients – As we’ve seen in the introduction to this article. So many around the world become seriously ill and for many unfortunately, there is little to no hope of recovery. Animals cannot heal them or make them much better physically. Yet, so much can be done emotionally to help them through rough hours or treatments. Also, they greatly benefit against depression with companionship and wonderful listening ear!
These are just a few of the cases animals are such wonderful assets to therapy. Sure, not everyone can be part of these programs, but for those who can (even in some small way), the experiences fill the heart with tender warmth and fulfillment. In participating you can provide comfort, lift spirits, lower anxiety, lower physical pain and also bring motivation to those who loose their own strengths during personal hardships and sickness. This, of course, is only a very short list of benefits, all of which come from joining a great program for those who need it most.
Who Can Join?
The real question is who wouldn’t want to be a part of such gratifying experiences? I’m sure if we could, we would all cuddle our pets and bring them to the closest residence or hospital we could find. But reality is there is a lot to consider before making that step.
First things first, make an honest self-evaluation. That’s right you the pet parent have a big role to play in this as well. This has nothing to do with getting high scores or winning a contest. What you need to know is if you can handle the situations you would be faced with:
- Can you handle funky smells or being around sick patients in discomfort?
- Are you willing and able to follow the rules set by the program of facility?
- How much time would you be able to set aside for visits? 1 visit a week? 1 visit a month? Etc.
- Would your pet really enjoy this or are you doing this for you?
- How costly is it as a new member? Can you afford that as well as the other things involved like gas and vet visits?
If you answer yes to these questions, you’re already headed in the right direction!
Now that you have answered your questions, it’s time to have a look at your pet. As you can imagine, not every pet is suited for this kind of work. They all have different personalities, and just maybe they don’t share your views on visiting strangers. Here are a few useful questions to evaluate your pet:
- Does he/she have good manners? Even around new people?
- Is he/she at least 1 year old?
- Does he/she have a clean bill of health and up to date rabies shots?
- Does your pet like to travel?
- Are you sure your pet won’t mind being excessively petted, hugged or even tugged by kids or adults?
All pet therapy organizations have different requirements to join their teams, so the best thing would be to do your homework. Do they require some sort of course before joining? Would you have to travel far to make visits? What kind of facilities would you be visiting? These and all the above questions are IMPORTANT to analyze seriously! After all, this is not a program just for those who want to have fun showing off their pet. This is serious. Would it be fair that you spend a lot of time and even money only to find out this is not for you after one visit?
Be an Active Part of Change
Millions of lives each year are touched by happy visits from new friends such as dogs, cats, horses, guinea pigs, rabbits and so many more. Are you and your pet the perfect pair to join into a smile generating program? Excellent!! Here are a few steps to get ready for:
- You must check out the local registration and certification process and requirements. Before getting started, it’s good to know your pet is a match for this work. As we’ve mentioned, good manners are essential. For example, your dog can’t bark at people, run towards them or jump on them! Dogs, in this atmosphere have to stay calm, relaxed despite noises or smells. All-in-all, make sure you and your dog meet the requirements for this work before going any further in the process.
- There will usually be an online or workshop ‘course’ to complete as a pet handler. Here you will learn how to make sure you, your pet and the visited stay safe at all times. Also, if unexpected events pop-up you will be prepared to calmly deal with them. Every organization has their own procedures as far as visits, so you will also have to learn how they, over the years, find is the best way to go about making visits.
- Make sure all is in order. It’s important not to rush the process or skip steps. Make sure you understand and are able to follow through on the information received during the training. Also, now is a good time to make sure your pet is ready. Pay a visit to the vet to make sure all is in order and up to date. Now you’re ready to proceed to the next step.
- Last and final step! Are you ready to pass the test and start a whole new and rewarding chapter in your life? Here we go! Generally speaking, pet assisted programs want to make sure you and your pet are ready. They will set the scene and see how well you handle your pet and how he responds in different situations. This is a very important exam. It will help them determine where you will be suited to make visits but also ensure everyone’s safety.
What a thrill it is to make the necessary steps and changes to experience personally the beauty that is zootherapy! Just imagine getting your first assigned visit! How exciting! If you are not 100% convinced this will flood you with rich blessings, read on!
Programs That Change Lives
Writing this article has given me the opportunity to come into contact with several AAT organizations and I must say they are inspirational and moving. They spend so much time and resources to help their communities in the very best way they know how. Here is a story that I had to share with you from Therapy Dogs inc:
‘There are thousands of stories! Anyone who does this type of volunteer work has a book full if they do it for very many years. I’ve done this for 24 years so I have several, but my favorite person who I visited for 8 years at a nursing home was a madam from a brothel in Wyoming.
Her name was Fairy Walker and the first time I met her she was 88 yrs. Old with a red dress, red heels, red hat and red lipstick. She looked at me and asked me, “Why do you have my dog?” I was so surprised at her question that I just answered, “I’m taking care of her for you?” To which she asked, “Is she eating?” “Yes, she’s doing very well.” I told her. Every month we went to see her and she talked to Eleanor, my Doberman, all the way around the facility. Sometimes I heard nothing but swearing so Elea got an ear full! She eventually had red high top tennis shoes instead of heels and they took her lipstick away because she wanted everyone to wear it. She died at 96 and I still miss her and her Doberman that was really mine.’"
So what do you say? Would your cat, dog, rabbit, guinea pig, horse etc., work well in this type of program? Take it directly from Billie at Therapy Dogs inc., who says:
“It’s the best thing you can do with your dog/pet. It’s a win win for all involved. I always say, “If you don’t do it, you don’t get it.” The rewards are priceless!”
So go ahead! Don’t be shy to ask your local veterinarians or clinics if they have pet-assisted therapy programs. If not, here are a few websites to help you start a brand new adventure with your pet.
USA - Pet-Assisted Therapy Programs
CANADA - Pet-Assisted Therapy Programs
UK - Pet-Assisted Therapy Programs
SCOTLAND - Pet-Assisted Therapy Programs
AUSTRALIA - Pet-Assisted Therapy Programs
INTERNATIONAL - Pet-Assisted Therapy Programs
Weather helping a young boy get through a tough day, making a room full of elderly people lively again or comforting a terminal patient in the last hours, ALL are priceless gifts. From large horses to small guinea pigs, every animal that participates in animal-assisted programs can make remarkable changes in the lives of those trapped in their own circumstances.
Let us cherish our beautiful pets and the power of change they can bring to our lives and the lives of others. We may not be able to change the world, but with them, we can change a frown into a smile every time.
* If you have had cherished experiences with zootherapy or emotional support animals, please feel free to share your stories with us by leaving us a comment below. We always love to hear happy stories from animal lovers everywhere around the world. *