Animals have historically been the companions of humans from the beginning of civilization. In the primitive period, they were domesticated to assist in making a livelihood. Gradually with the increasing aesthetic taste of our civilization, pets also started to be adopted to have a companion rather than assess the “immediate” benefits that the animal offers.
The knowledge of animals being able to influence human psychology through their presence and actions started with the ancient Greeks when horses were used to lift severely ill people’s spirits. Florence Nightingale considered the founder of modern nursing, in the late 1880s, started to recommend small animals to her patients as pets so that they could feel love and companionship which would allow them to heal faster.
The belief that “Unconditional love is exceptionally healing” is the root of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). Our pets offer us this unconditional love which is otherwise so difficult to find around us. AAT is recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health as a type of psychotherapy for treating depression and other mood disorders. Having a pet around gives one a sense of peace and emotional connectedness. Depression leads people to get socially isolated and away from the fuss of other human beings. Animals however are mostly seen as an exception to this. People with increased stress, anxiety, and depression levels have largely reported to relax and find peace in the presence of their favorite pets around them.
The most commonly used animals in pet therapy are dogs and cats. However other animals like horses, guinea pigs, fishes, and rabbits are also used depending on the preferences and therapeutic goals of a person. Pet therapy has been proven to release endorphins that produce a calming effect. This can help alleviate pain, reduce stress, and improve the overall psychological state of a person. The person petting an animal gradually develops a sense of responsibility for the well being of the animal. When one starts to identify themselves as the guardian and protector of their pets, it diverts the mind from negative thoughts and prevents depression from flaring up. The jolliness of an animal provides constant companionship and happiness to the person undergoing therapy.
The type of animals chosen for therapy varies for different cases. One example showed that exposure to an aviary filled with songbirds lowered depression in elderly men; another example noted the improved moods of depressed college students after they interacted with a therapy dog. The amount of interaction that an individual has with the animal also dictates the effectiveness of the therapy. If the individual is just observing the animal, it reduces stress levels and has a positive impact on psychological health. If the individual is touching or playing with the animal, it leads to drastic psychosocial benefits and mental positivity.
The major areas where AAT can be used as a remedy are:
- Prisons and juvenile homes
- Victims of abuse and sexual abuse
- Centers for people with Autism, and learning disability
- Hospital programs for patients with depression, stress and anxiety
- Centers and projects for older people and people with cerebral palsy
(Image Source: Unsplash)
AAT is a relatively new concept in India, with most people lacking the awareness of its benefits. The facilities haven’t yet bloomed across the country with the number of registered AAT practitioners being limited. However, with the increasing demand and effectiveness of AAT, the future holds a lot of scope and promise for a lot of Indians to benefit from this. In general, owning a pet also helps in keeping up with one’s day to day psychological health.
Speaking Grey has reached out to an Animal Assisted Therapy Expert Raya Karin for answers to some FAQs related to the same.
Going back, her roots lay in Ecotherapy and Animal Assisted Therapy Private Practice. Born and raised on a farm in northern British Columbia, Canada surrounded by animals and nature it made sense that she was drawn back to what always gave her peace and calm. Through her career of over 25 years in the counselling and healing field she wanted to create her own vision and therapy practice. “Roots To Wellness” has been her lifelong dream of having a holistic therapy practice that steps outside the typical office space into the great outdoors. Nature offers a space to heal and Nurture the mind body and soul. For more information, visit www.rayakarinrootstowellness.ca
- What are the specialties/training that an animal has to undergo to be able to help in AAT?
The Therapy Dog Program is four levels and guides us through the basics of positive reinforcement clicker training, basic obedience, socialization skills to reading our dog’s body language, understanding our relationship with my dog, and how my dog will work effectively in my therapy practice.
- Are there any risks involved in AAT, both for the person and the animal?
Therapy work is never easy and depending on the issues such as trauma, loss, abuse, anxiety, depression, fear, animals are very sensitive and intuitive and can take on the energy and also need to have a self-care plan in place for themselves in doing such therapy work. Not everyone feels comfortable with dogs so it is determined on a case by case basis.
Some of the biggest risks of pet therapy involve safety and sanitation. People who are allergic to animal dander may have reactions during pet therapy. Animals in pet therapy programs are typically screened for behavior and health. An animal’s owner and handler must also undergo training and evaluation to help ensure a positive experience.
- How is pet therapy administered?
The pet handler and the pet must be trained and certified. I do my work in nature outdoors and for those who want to include my therapy dog Ruby in their sessions, she comes along with us.
- What is the type of symptoms based on which you decide that AAT might help the person?
There are many different things that AAT can help provide emotional support with PTSD, addictions, anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, learning disabilities, autism, bipolar, Alzheimer’s and so much more.
About The Author:
Swarnadeep Ghosh is a final year student of Electronics Engineering. He is an ardent animal lover and aspires to work for animal welfare and their benefits in improving mental health. He trains dogs as his hobby and dreams to link the missing bridge of love between stray animals and the human community.
Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy-Dr. Aubrey H. Fine
A REVIEW ON ANIMAL-ASSISTED THERAPY AND ACTIVITIES FOR HEALTHCARE AND TEACHING OF CHILDREN– MYAT MIN ,2016 JOURNAL
Animal Assisted Therapy by Donald Altschiller.