When An­i­mals Of­fer a Help­ing Paw

Animal Scene - - DID YOU KNOW? - Text by PJ PUNLA

Dogs were the first an­i­mal to be do­mes­ti­cated: they grad­u­ally be­came so ac­cus­tomed to liv­ing in such close prox­im­ity to hu­mans that it be­came safe to wel­come them into hu­man homes and com­mu­ni­ties.

But what hap­pened to dogs as soon as they were tamed? Over time, dogs were bred to per­form all sorts of ac­tions, al­most al­ways in con­junc­tion with hu­mans. Some dogs hunted, go­ing after prey an­i­mals which they and their hu­mans could then eat. Some dogs served as guardians and pro­tec­tors of the home or of the com­mu­nity. Some dogs herded and watched over farm an­i­mals.

Dogs still do all those things to­day, and in fact, the list of tasks en­trusted to them keeps get­ting longer. Dif­fer­ent kinds of po­lice dogs per­form dif­fer­ent tasks re­lated to law en­force­ment, while dif­fer­ent kinds of mil­i­tary dogs work along­side hu­man sol­diers in wartime and peace­time. These kinds of dogs get dec­o­ra­tions for mer­i­to­ri­ous ser­vice just as their hu­man coun­ter­parts do, and their stories go vi­ral so we hear all about them on the news.

In mod­ern times, how­ever, the ca­nine lime­light is shared with an en­tirely dif­fer­ent group of work­ing dogs: the ones who work in homes, schools, hospi­tals, court­rooms, and other in­sti­tu­tions to en­sure the well-be­ing of the peo­ple around them.

The ter­mi­nol­ogy can be con­fus­ing, so let’s be­gin with a quick se­ries of def­i­ni­tions.

Ther­apy an­i­mals, in­clud­ing ther­apy

dogs, cats, horses, and other an­i­mals, are ac­tive per­form­ers in what is re­ferred to as “an­i­mal-as­sisted ther­apy.” In this form of ther­apy, the an­i­mals work with pa­tients in or­der to help them re­gain or im­prove so­cial, emo­tional, or cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing. They can in­crease the rap­port be­tween pa­tients and ther­a­pists, and help pa­tients re­lax and be­come more re­cep­tive to the idea of pos­i­tive change and heal­ing.

Ser­vice an­i­mals are trained for the ex­press pur­pose of pro­vid­ing com­pan­ion­ship and as­sis­tance to per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties. Again, dogs are the most com­mon type of an­i­mal work­ing in this ca­pac­ity, although cats, birds, horses, fer­rets, and mon­keys have also been trained to be­come ser­vice an­i­mals. The pres­ence of a ser­vice an­i­mal can help a per­son with a dis­abil­ity nav­i­gate the world with more in­de­pen­dence and ease than if he or she had been alone.

Emo­tional sup­port an­i­mals also pro­vide as­sis­tance and com­pan­ion­ship to per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties. The difference be­tween a ser­vice an­i­mal and an emo­tional sup­port an­i­mal lies in the pres­ence or ab­sence of train­ing. For ex­am­ple, a guide dog, one of the most well-known types of ser­vice an­i­mal, is ex­plic­itly trained to lead peo­ple who are blind or vis­ually-im­paired around any ob­sta­cles in their way. The ex­act same dog who has not re­ceived guide dog train­ing would be more cor­rectly char­ac­ter­ized as an emo­tional sup­port an­i­mal.

Ser­vice an­i­mals lit­er­ally go to school so that they can learn about all the ways in which they can as­sist peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, while emo­tional sup­port an­i­mals pro­vide com­pan­ion­ship and a con­stant pres­ence with­out nec­es­sar­ily hav­ing to re­ceive the same rig­or­ous train­ing. Fi­nally, ther­apy dogs may or may not re­ceive train­ing, but the im­por­tant thing is that they are re­cep­tive to be­ing touched or han­dled by even com­plete strangers.

The idea of the ther­apy dog goes all the way back to the roots of psy­cho­anal­y­sis, when Sig­mund Freud found that his pa­tients re­sponded pos­i­tively to the pres­ence of his Chow Chow. The dog helped cre­ate a re­lax­ing at­mos­phere, which al­lowed pa­tients to con­fide more eas­ily in Freud, and to pay more at­ten­tion to his sug­ges­tions.

It is no sur­prise, then, that ther­apy dogs do a lot of their work in the health­care con­text. In the Philip­pines, for ex­am­ple, the Philip­pine An­i­mal Wel­fare So­ci­ety’s Dr. Dog pro­gram en­lists dogs of an out­go­ing and placid tem­per­a­ment to make the rounds of var­i­ous hos­pi­tal wards and places that pro­vide long-term care. It is be­lieved that the pres­ence of these dogs can cheer up pa­tients and help them de­velop a more pos­i­tive out­look on life--which can then have salu­tary ef­fects on their health.

But ther­apy dogs are not just re­stricted to the hos­pi­tal. In the United States, for ex­am­ple, ther­apy dogs work in court­rooms in some states in or­der to pro­vide a calm en­vi­ron­ment and emo­tional sta­bil­ity. The dogs may ac­com­pany chil­dren who are be­ing asked to tes­tify be­fore a judge and a jury, or vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault who need the steady and com­fort­ing pres­ence of the dog in or­der to tell their stories.

Back in the Philip­pines, a group known as Com­mu­ni­tails brought dogs to a noted pri­vate univer­sity dur­ing the midterm ex­am­i­na­tions, in or­der to give the stressed-out stu­dents a brief breather. It is hoped that the Bring Your Own Dog event may be re­peated on a yearly or semes­tral ba­sis, so that stu­dents may con­tinue to have a chance to re­lax even when they’re in the mid­dle of mid-term tests.

Ther­apy dogs be­long in the li­brary, too, as pub­lic li­braries in the United States have proven. In Rich­mond, Cal­i­for­nia, the pub­lic li­brary is con­duct­ing a lit­er­acy pro­gram that teaches kids to im­prove their read­ing skills by hav­ing them read books with--and in many cases to--dogs pro­vided by the An­i­mal Res­cue Foun­da­tion. It’s said that be­cause the dogs don’t pass judg­ment on the chil­dren when they make mis­takes, the chil­dren be­come more con­fi­dent in their read­ing skills.

With the help of ther­apy dogs, we can make the world a bet­ter place, one wag­ging tail and one paw-print at a time.

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