The term pet therapy was invented by the American psychiatrist Boris Levinson in the early 1960s and can be literally translated as “therapy for the affected animal”.
It is a practice that goes alongside and reinforces other traditional forms of therapy. Pet therapy uses the benefit that individuals derive from the relationship with animals. These sensations are used to strengthen the health and support the morale of individuals undergoing heavy drug treatments or long-term patients in hospital.
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The relationship with the animal is also used to improve the welfare of the elderly in retirement homes. Lately, pet therapy is also used with children and adolescents, both in psychological therapies and, with the little ones, to encourage development and creativity.
What is Dog Therapy:
The dog therapy pet therapy is practiced with a dog . Its effectiveness derives from the fact that our furry friends are able to give affection spontaneously and sincerely , without any prejudice, conditioning or falsification – a characteristic that unites all animals, distinguishing them from humans, but which is particularly accentuated in dogs. No defensive psychological mechanism , of calculation or interest, comes into play in them when they decide to establish an emotional relationship with us .
Furthermore, dogs are able to read human body language and perceive their emotional state through their hormonal secretions.: anxiety or worry, fear or sadness. It does not end here: once an emotion is perceived in the subject, dogs react with vivacity, play, physical contact, cuddles and warmth. All this provokes in the patient new, pleasant and unexpected sensations: it instills courage, stimulates to return to socialize and to rediscover serenity and joy, a harmony that promotes healing.
The dog therapy is, therefore, applied in hospitals, to improve the recuperation of patients , adults and kids (young patients, in particular, the dogs take care as if they were their pups); in institutions for the elderly or disabled, whose daily life they enrich; in the treatment of patients with psychological and relational problems, to whom they trust and support; in schools, to increase creativity and observation in children , mitigate shyness or aggression. In establishing any dog / patient relationship, complicity and continuous exchange of roles are fundamental : sometimes the patient is the object of the dog’s attention, sometimes it is the dog that is the object of the patient’s care. In any case, contact with diversity makes you rediscover trust in yourself and in others.
Pet therapy: why you choose the dog
Pet therapy can only be carried out with pets: dogs, cats, donkeys, rabbits and horses. However, most of the associations choose the dog. This is due to the behavioral characteristics of the animal.
Many studies have proven that the dog, by its nature, is able to recognize an authority external to it while maintaining its personality intact. The predisposition to learn from a subject that he recognizes as having a higher hierarchical level (be it animal or human), explains why the dog is trainable, so much so that it becomes a fundamental collaborator of man. We think of police dogs, guides for the blind and precisely the specimens used in pet therapy.
Furthermore, man, by selecting the various races, has tried to cultivate the components of compliance, obedience and dependence on the reference figure, to make him a perfect life partner. In some cases this work was better than in others.
Pet Dog therapy: which breeds to prefer
The selection work on dog breeds, associated with the genetic and aptitude characteristics of some types of dogs, has produced excellent results in some cases. That is, major dogs predisposed to interact with humans and to be towed for specific jobs.
Think of the breeds of hunting and retriever dogs, in which the dog has been taught to inhibit the sense of belonging to the prey, favoring the development of collaborative skills with humans and sociability with the pack.
For these reasons , the breed most suitable for pet therapy can be identified in Retrievers or retrievers. These dogs, in fact, are more likely to develop those basic aptitude skills for a delicate job like this.
The characteristics that make it “the perfect dog” are: the desire to interact with humans and participate in the owner’s daily activities, the ability to learn, the collaborative instinct, natural curiosity and playfulness. In addition to genetics, the dog’s growth path is fundamental and of course, the answers that the dog will give during the preparation program.
Pet Dog therapy: who is it for?
The activities with the dog have found numerous application areas, which now go beyond strictly therapeutic contexts. Dogs are also used in contexts: educational, playful, recreational, socially useful, health promotion. For this reason, pet therapy can be divided into 3 different subgroups:
• AAA animal assisted activity: for example in prisons.
• TAA animal-assisted therapy: carried out mainly in hospitals and retirement homes.
• EAA animal-assisted education: kindergartens, schools.
In principle, everyone can benefit from interventions with dogs: children , the elderly , people with disabilities , psychiatric patients . The animal does not judge, does not reject, gives itself totally, stimulates smiles, helps socialization, increases self-esteem and has no prejudices.
In his company the heart rate decreases and anxieties and fears decrease. Furthermore, it favors the full expression of people, which among humans is only verbal, while with the animal, it also occurs at the body level. The dog, for its part, is not used as a mere tool, but the relationship that is created between the animal and the people to whom the intervention is addressed is exploited.
Pet Dog therapy: how to train a dog that heals
If we want our puppy to become a pet therapy operator, the path starts from far away:
• genetic study : some temperamental and behavioral traits are researched • choice of parents : parents must be free from health problems and genetic defects • pregnancy management : a stress-free gestation produces very positive effects on the puppies • development and imprinting : a stimulating life from the first days and the sudden inhibition of biting or aggressive behaviors can facilitate the growth of a good therapy dog. • choice of puppy : using character tests you can choose the most suitable specimen. • socialization
it is one of the most delicate moments of development in a dog’s life and problems in the relationship with humans usually arise here.
• education and training : the future handler must make the dog balanced and capable of responding with a certain behavior to specific commands and situations
• gradual experience: the young dog begins by attending the interventions, attending the places and associating them with positive sensations.
• inclusion in the programs: only the evaluation of the handler-dog couple as a real team will decide the possibility of being included in a pet therapy program.
Pet Dog Therapy: final test
After following an adequate preparation course, our dog will be evaluated from the point of view of the acquired skills and aptitudes, in “couple” with his handler.
A test introduced in 1989 by the American Kennel Club and defined: “Canine Good Citizen Test”, that is “Good Citizen Dog Test”, which will be adapted to the operational context in which the dog will operate, can be used, adding different objects. and equipment that could be found in the various structures and situations.
The ten points are as follows:
1. Accept a stranger amicably
2. Sit and be caressed
3. Examination of appearance and care by a stranger
4. Walk on a leash
5. Walk in the middle of a group of people
6. Basic commands: sit, land and remains in place
7. Call of the dog
8. Reaction to meeting other animals (especially dogs)
9. Reaction to distractions
10. Separation of the dog from the handler
If we think of the pleasure of snuggling up next to our furry friend on the sofa, it is not difficult for us to understand that dogs can: heal, educate, alleviate suffering, stimulate the psychophysical well-being of the individual.
Dog therapy for the Elderly:
Numerous studies have shown that having a pet is good for your health.
These are relationships based on strong bonds with another living being that depends exclusively on us, and very often the experience of sharing something with them ends up being healthy.
In fact, animals are commonly used as support in various treatments. In this article we will tell you a little about dog therapy for the elderly.
There are several existing entities that take care of the use of dogs to help the elderly suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or senility, whether it is to provide them with help with everyday jobs, or simply to keep company during some moments of the day. They ensure that the use of animals is beneficial for both the body and the mind.
To combat loneliness
To say that old age and loneliness are strongly linked is not entirely correct. In fact, there are close-knit families who stay close to their older members, as well as friendships that last into the age of majority and even older people with very active social lives.
Nonetheless, whether it is because family and friends are far away, dead or simply disinterested in them, there are very special cases in which the elderly have to face old age alone.
In these cases, it is not uncommon for dogs to be used as a method of providing good company: these animals are able to provide affection and devotion , as well as turn into friends for the rest of their lives.
They are also therapeutic when it comes to fighting depression . Dogs tend to do things or engage in behaviors that appear terribly funny to us, thus managing to lift our mood even in the most difficult moments.
Another aspect to take into consideration is the beneficial power of caresses. Petting a dog produces a series of stimuli within the brain, producing endorphins, making us relax and helping us to control stress.
The development of diseases that affect the proper functioning of certain areas of the brain ends up affecting the way a person interacts with others.
Sharing life with a dog has been proven to stimulate the social character of people who are victims of self-isolation due to some mental pathology . This type of stimulus is so effective that it is also recommended for therapies with autistic children.
An aspect of particular importance related to the use of dogs in therapies for the elderly, concerns the feeling of usefulness and responsibility that comes from having to take care of an animal.
Conditions that occur in old age, such as loss of vision or motor skills, as well as the debilitation of tissues, bones and muscles, can cause the person to be forced to give up certain activities, consequently feeling useless.
For this reason, adding a dose of extra activities such as walks, nutrition and games will greatly improve the well-being and quality of life of the owner; they are also recommendable activities from a physical point of view, since they involve constant exercise.
The most suitable types of dogs
Usually for this type of therapy , dogs with a noble and loyal character are used , which are also athletic, strong and with a good disposition to work.
It is important that the selected dog responds to orders quickly. More affectionate dogs are also preferable to dogs that tend to be independent. In addition, you will have to choose a balanced dog breed.
Within this categorization are members of the Retriever family, Collies and a good range of herding dogs . In fact, the latter know how to adapt well to both home life and a more active life , and are also always willing to work and satisfy every need of their masters.
However, dogs used in therapy do need to be trained to some degree , especially as being large breeds, they could end up hurting patients unintentionally.
Regarding Retrievers it is important to work on their impulse to jump on people , while herders need to be exercised properly to avoid the anxiety caused by the accumulations of energy.