Let’s Talk Pet Therapy
For over 20 years, I have been involved with a variety of tutor/mentoring programs, teaching English as a second language, promoting adult literacy and working with children in various capacities. About a year ago, my husband and I wanted to do an activity that we could do together with Brandy and Val, so, after receiving their Canine Good Citizenship certificates, we started working in pet therapy programs. Our participation to date includes ongoing school and library programs and one-time events such as a Dog Safety Workshop for elementary aged children and their mentors.
What is pet therapy or animal assisted therapy (AAT)? It’s where animals and their handlers work with individuals to help them overcome specific physical, social or emotional obstacles or help them achieve certain goals that will ultimately improve their health and overall quality of life. The theory behind a lot of it is that people will relate to animals in ways that they won’t or can’t with other humans. They become uninhibited, will open up to the pets or even try new tasks since there is no fear of being judged or ridiculed by another adult or peer. Interaction with pets has also shown to have positive health benefits on lowering blood pressure and stress!
We have worked in library reading programs–”Read to Rover” and “Paws to Read” are popular titles–where children will read to the dogs at 15 minute intervals and, during that time, the kids sit next to Brandy or Val and simply read a book at their own pace without adult intervention. The children can stop and pet the dogs or they can just keep reading. At the end of the 15 minutes, there is a little time for Q&A or giving treats. Some children are excellent readers and just enjoy being around the dogs; others stumble or mumble at first and as the time or program goes on, their confidence seems to build and their reading and elocution improves.
Brandy and Val also visit a special needs school and work with autistic children of various levels. Val and my husband work primarily with elementary classes and Brandy and I with middle and high school. A few of the students are afraid of the dogs and won’t touch or acknowledge them but with each passing session, we see the barriers breaking down a bit. Our goal is complete interaction by the end of the school year! Other students simply don’t have the motor skills to interact so we work on that by helping them feed Brandy and Val carrots on a fork, or helping them brush the dogs. Sometimes we walk the dogs, with each student taking turns holding on to an auxiliary leash. Other exercises that we employ help teach colors, numbers and vocabulary with Brandy and Val being the focal point. We know we’re getting through at some level and that’s very gratifying. The students are excited to see us and I enjoy the relationships and trust I am building with them. I cannot stress how important the trust factor is in making overall progress with a student, adult or child! Over the years I have found that progress is most made when the person you are working with trusts you!
Pet therapy programs cast wide nets in society today. Hospitals have working dogs visiting families in waiting rooms, pediatric wings, cancer wards, psychiatric wings, rehabilitation wings and more. Many senior centers and nursing homes welcome the sight of happy dogs coming in and cheering up the residents and staff on a regular basis. Prisons and correctional facilities now employ therapy dogs for a variety of their rehabilitation programs.
The need is there, there’s work to be done and the rewards are high.