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Research shows that people with pets have decreased blood pressure, lower blood pressure levels, increased happiness, and increased opportunities for exercise and socialization(1).
Animal-assisted therapy, a field that uses animals, like dogs, to help individuals recover from or cope with health problems, is gaining public interest in health care.
Therapy dogs have also been a source of comfort for those suffering from illnesses and disabilities. They have helped out at schools, hospitals, disaster sites, providing support to people with learning difficulties and developmental disabilities.
Even simple activities, such as positively interacting with a dog, petting, and engaging in fun activities like doga (yoga sessions with dogs), can be beneficial for both humans and animals.
How Do Therapy Dogs Provide Care?
While there is confusion on how a dog qualifies to be a service animal, service dogs are not the same as therapy dogs.
A service dog’s main responsibility is to assist people, such as hospital patients, in their daily activities. Meanwhile, therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort and affection. These dogs can also help make people feel less lonely, relieving stress.
Adults, especially the elderly, can use therapy dogs for companionship and support. Among the sickly and disabled, therapy dogs can be instrumental in providing recovery and rehabilitation.
Animals help provide comfort and happiness to humans. These feelings release hormones that affect someone similarly when developing happy relationships with another person.
One such hormone, called oxytocin, causes this calming effect. It soothes one’s mind and nerves and improves cognitive function(2).
How Therapy Dogs Help Children With Disabilities
Young people may struggle with anxiety or difficulty when learning new things, especially when they are at school or doing homework.
This feeling can be caused by neurological differences causing a lower-than-expected learning ability(3) or developmental disorders such as autism, speech disorders, or physical underdevelopment(4).
Therapy dogs can assist in creating a soothing effect that helps children relax their minds and relieve stress. This effect supports children’s learning processes, allowing them to perform better in academics.
Therapy dogs can also help children with physical disabilities. Even without the special training that service dogs get, therapy dogs provide comfort and companionship, which are essential to a person’s mental health.
Service dogs can still be utilized as therapy dogs, but a therapy dog does not need to be a service dog.
For example, while a service dog can assist a blind child in walking from one place to the next, a therapy dog can stay by that child’s side to not let that child feel alone.
Still, therapy dogs also receive training so they can remain calm and composed in the presence of other people.
Know More About Therapy Dogs
One can choose to train a therapy dog on their own or with assistance from licensed dog trainers.
Note that therapy dogs have to be certified from and registered in a reputable national organization. Certification includes training and temperament assessment.
For those interested in volunteering and registering their pets to become therapy dogs, the Alliance of Therapy Dogs provides certification and support to enable dogs to visit schools, hospitals, and other facilities.
Other organizations are also available for those who wish to volunteer and have their pets certified as therapy dogs. The American Kennel Club has a list of these organizations.
For more information, dog owners can reach out to the following organizations:
Pet Partners provide pet services specializing in health and wellness and assisting in patient rehabilitation and recovery.
School Therapy Dogs specializes in animal-assisted therapy and counseling for those interested in having school-based pets, which can be beneficial for students and teachers.
Who Can Help?
There are community events within San Francisco County that cater to people with disabilities, like comedy shows, night markets, and yoga sessions.
There are also workshops and seminars where those with disabilities are welcome to learn. Prices vary, but some events are free of charge.
Several community-based agencies in San Francisco provide various services to those with disabilities.
The Mayor’s Office on Disability provides a list of these agencies, including:
● Arc of San Francisco – a non-profit agency for adults with developmental disabilities
● Mental Health Association of San Francisco – for services promoting mental health wellness
● Support for Families of Children with Disabilities – for those whose children have special healthcare needs.
While some people may still doubt the efficacy of using pets to improve a person’s health and wellness, research shows that therapy dogs positively impact people, especially patients with disorders(5). For children, therapy dogs can also assist in improving their ability to learn.
Although further study is still needed, there may come a time when therapy pets will become a major contributor in improving one’s mental health.
(1) About Pets & People https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health-benefits/index.html
(2) When Does Oxytocin Affect Human Memory Encoding? The Role of Social Context and Individual Attachment Style https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00349
(3) Types of Learning Disabilities https://ldaamerica.org/types-of-learning-disabilities/
(4) Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
(5) Incorporating animal-assisted therapy in mental health treatments for adolescents: A systematic review of canine assisted psychotherapy https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210761