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When animals lend a helping hand
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When animals lend a helping hand

Animal assisted therapy offers emotional and therapeutic support, not just cuddles
Woman with dog.
Certified animal-assisted therapist and a psychologist Unnati Hunjan with her furry friend | Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K

Meet Wellie, a three-year-old Labrador retriever ‘working’ in Philadelphia. She was bred, raised and trained to be a facility dog since she was six weeks old. One of the first persons that Wellie worked with was an individual who had suffered a stroke.  

Wellie’s facilitator would get the dependent person to give her commands such as ‘sit’, ‘down’, and ‘speak’ which would help the person to utter the words better. Stroke had rendered the person extremely weak on the right side of the body. Wellie was often strategically positioned on the right side. Whenever the person tried to pet or brush her, it would be done with affected right hand – a plan that helped to build strength in that hand.  

For a long time, people across age groups have taken in cats, dogs, rabbits, birds and fish, among other pets, either as companions or a source of comfort. We know police dogs that excel as sniffers of explosives and land mines, as narcotics detectors, those that locate people stuck in disaster zones; and as precious aides to the blind. But there is a lot more value than these to the presence of pets around us, as Happiest Health reveals here. 

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic treatment where animals become an integral part of the main line of treatment. AAT mainly relies on human-animal bonding that helps people cope with various health issues including anxiety, stroke, cancer, spinal cord injury, and amputation. 

Many studies have proven their usefulness in certain therapies. “Research has well established the therapeutic benefits of interaction with animals and how it initiates secretion of oxytocin and endorphins. Animals are also known to provide unconditional acceptance, love and motivation to push us beyond our comfort zone,” says Minal Kavishwar, Founder of Animal Angels Therapy Centre and Foundation in Mumbai. “They help us to establish relationships. When we incorporate these healing qualities of therapy animals along with traditional modes of therapy, we see the benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT).”  

Wellie, the ‘patient’ dog 

Wellie has been working for a year at the in-patient physical rehabilitation wing of Good Shepherd Penn Partners facility in Philadelphia, alongside facility dog handler Jessica Hetrich. Wellie easily clocks 20-40 work hours a week.  

Hetrich shares a glimpse of Wellie’s normal working day. “She primarily sees [people] with spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, amputations and lung transplants. She helps [affected people] to work towards their goals such as balance, endurance, strength, and fine motor skills,” she says. 

Wellie also visits patients at their bedside to minimise their anxiety, pain, and loneliness. “Wellie completely changed the atmosphere of our workplace – patients, families, especially the staff have benefitted from her presence. She creates a sense of normalcy and helps to boost everyone’s morale,” the handler says. Hetrich is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist and brain injury specialist from Penn Institute for Rehabilitative Medicine. 

‘Beyond human-animal bonding’ 

Woman walking dogs.
AAT therapist Unnati Hunjan walking the dogs under her care | Anantha Subramanyam K

Experts discount a view that says such use of animals is nothing more than cuddle therapy. Kavishwar, who is also an Animal Assisted Interventions specialist, says any supporting therapy can qualify as AAT only when a trained licensed mental or medical health therapist uses a dog that is trained, evaluated and certified in his or her area of training. “Otherwise, it is just a human-animal interaction,” according to her. 

It is common in India to have pets but how many owners are aware that their German Shepherd, Labrador, and Saint Bernard are `working dog-breeds’. Thanks to research and an increasing awareness, pet owners have started understanding that their pets actually thrive when given goal-based work. More pet owners are evaluating and training their pets to be therapy dogs. –Minal Kavishwar, Founder, Animal Angels Therapy Center and Foundation, Mumbai. 

Dedicated training is needed  

How do they train the therapy canines? Hetrich says, “There is a dedicated training for such dogs. Wellie started her training when she was just six weeks old. Once she was one-and-a-half years old, she was sent to train professionally with Canine Companions, a not-for-profit organisation working in the growing sector of service dogs. 

After nearly two years of training, when she turned two, Wellie graduated and began her journey as a therapy dog. “Wellie knows over 40 commands and is certified by Assistance Dogs International. We must also go through yearly testing to ensure Wellie is still up to date with her training and professional behaviour,” Hetrich points out.

Kavishwar, who is a licensed international team evaluator for the India-Asia region for Pet Partners, (petpartners.org) explains that animals used in therapies must go through standard evaluations and tests before they are certified and deployed. The Animal Angels Foundation that she started has initiated the Therapy Dogs India certification to evaluate dogs and handlers (the pets’ parents), preparing them for visits as a team of therapy dog and its handler. 

Apart from training, if one is looking at one’s pets for emotional wellbeing, then veterinary behaviourist Dr Nicholas H. Dodman from the Center for Canine Behavior Studies points out that the animal must be carefully selected to be affectionate and calm while being non-aggressive. 

Slow, steady take-off  

Although the practice of using animals in therapies has been around for a while but in a small way, and mostly among experts, Hetrich feels that of late, people are becoming increasingly aware of AAT. “I definitely think AAT is gaining recognition in the healthcare field. People are beginning to see the holistic benefits dogs have to offer – physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. Part of the reason I wanted to make an Instagram page of Wellie was to promote the use of AAT and facility dogs; they can be an integral part of the healing process.” 

People huddled around dog.
Studies show that the presence of animals even without any structured interactions can have positive outcomes | Anantha Subramanyam K

Animal studies have shown that just their mere presence without even any structured interactions have given more positive outcomes than the same intervention without any animal’s presence. One can only imagine if I were to involve a dog, a cat, farm animals, llamas, alpacas, what have you.. in a structured and meaningful manner in our sessions, the kind of benefits one can reap from their presence in our life.”Unnati Hunjan, a certified animal-assisted therapist and a psychologist who is also the founding member of a petcare startup, Supertails. 

How does AAT work?

One of its subtle strategies is to divert the patients from worrying about their illness and wallowing in self-pity. “In my view, AAT works by making a person to acknowledge the pet’s presence and its unconditional acceptance, thus causing the person in therapy to relax and start caring about another creature” [instead of obsessing over his or her medical issue,] explains veterinary behaviourist Dr Dodman.  

A 2008 qualitative pilot study titled ‘Animal-assisted therapy for people suffering from severe dementia’ revealed many psychological benefits for patients with dementia. It was found that animal-assisted therapy had a calming effect on the patients. The study also found that the dog, because of its unconditional acceptance of the patient, raised the self-esteem of the patient and added to the sense of being in a secure environment.

Hippocrates thought riding a horse produced calmness of mind. Sigmund Freud found that children were more likely to express themselves when a dog was in the room. Levinson helped popularise AAT when he vouched for it – again based on having his dog in the consulting room when he was interviewing children. AAT has been gaining traction ever since and is now employed frequently in nursing homes. Its time has come and it’s pretty much mainstream now.Dr Nick Dodman, Center for Canine Behavior Studies, Salisbury, Connecticut.

For the patients under the study, who until then were barely interacting with other people, their activities with the dog filled some of that social vacuum. Despite a lack of spoken words, non-verbal communication like touching and posture also helped. What was more, patients expressed that the dog was affectionate and they could identify themselves with it.  

Manjushree Patil is the founder and director of Aatman Academy, a customised learning inclusive school in Thane for students with diverse learning needs. She has found that their therapy dog Rio’s presence in the school comes with many benefits.  

“I had a bunch of learners with intellectual challenges. Having Rio around has really helped them to express themselves better. There was one extremely reticent child, but a few months of his association with Rio triggered his speech.” It is certainly an effective alternative approach to reaching out to a child, she says. 

Can Indian dogs be trained for therapy? Kavishwar of Animal Angels believes that it is not the breed but the individual dog and its personality that will decide if it can be a therapy dog. 

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