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Animal assisted therapy: How does it help and why opt for it?

“Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.” – George Eliot

Arathi Kannan

Animals and human beings often form a natural bond with each other. We’ve seen it in movies like Marley and Me (2008), Dolphin Tale (2011), Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009) and Free Willy (1993). Researchers have been studying this relationship for decades and have found that it goes beyond what is shown in popular culture. Human-animal interaction has a number of positive effects on the individual ’s overall wellbeing. Among many things, it helps increase emotional stability while improving one’s self-worth, socialization and communication skills.

The bond between human beings and animals has been used to enhance physical and emotional wellbeing since the 1600s. But it wasn’t until child psychologist Dr Boris Levinson published his study The Dog as a ‘Co-therapist’   in 1962 that it became a part of psychotherapy. The inclusion of animals as aides to psychotherapy has, since then, gained wide recognition.

What is animal-assisted therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) involves caring for or spending time with an animal during a goal-oriented therapy session. These goals can be physical, emotional, educational and/or psychological; AAT is used to complement the benefits of traditional therapy.

“It is about equipping a client to adapting, managing and learning to live with mental health concerns or mental illnesses.” -  Shruti Chakravarty, a mental health practitioner who includes therapy dogs in her practice.

The duration of each AAT session is usually one hour. In the first few sessions, the therapist gets a full understanding of the client’s history and evaluates their readiness to begin interacting with a therapy animal.

What animals are used in AAT?

There are a wide range of animals used in AAT – from small animals like guinea pigs and birds to larger ones like dogs, dolphins, and horses. In India, dogs are most common in the therapeutic setting. Some therapists also use cats and hamsters, but other kinds of animals have not been adopted into the therapeutic setting yet.

The reason dogs are commonly used in AAT is because they can emotionally engage, communicate and interact. They understand pointing, verbal and visual communication, and can read human facial expressions.

Irrespective of the breed or the animal species, it is important to ensure the therapy animal is well trained. Animals are chosen based on their temperament and reactions to various stimuli. In the case of dogs, those that are calm, friendly, and confident are found to be more suitable.

“The screening process is very crucial while selecting a therapy animal.”

- Shilpa Raghavan, animal-assisted therapist.

When is AAT used?

People of all ages can access AAT and it is useful both in individual and group settings. Different issues are addressed through AAT, including - homesickness, depression, anxiety post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, substance abuse, developmental disorders, behavioral difficulties or other physical conditions.

It also helps with the overall wellbeing of people with neurological disorders such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease. In such cases, it helps to reduce psychological distress and keeps the individual motivated to adhere better to their main line of treatment.

How does it help?

One of the most significant advantages of having an animal in therapy is the ease with which rapport is built. Shruti Chakravarty talks about how direct engagement with the animal helps clients, “Sometimes clients come in agitated, and then they sit with the animal, stroke the animal, they talk to the animal, and that helps to contain and manage some of their anxiety.” The presence of the animal can make it easier for the client to approach the therapist.

The animal becomes the reason the client is able to be in a position to talk about their concerns. In some cases, they find it easier to talk to the animal present during the session. Animal assisted therapist, Shilpa Raghavan says, “animals act as catalysts in the process.” This is especially helpful while addressing distressing topics like assault.

Is AAT for you?

AAT is not suitable for everyone. A therapist takes into account many factors before getting the client to interact with a therapy animal.

AAT may not be recommended if:

  • The client dislikes or is afraid of animals

  • They feel no connection towards animals

  • They have a history of abusing or being abused by an animal

  • Their religious beliefs prohibit their interaction with the kind of therapy animal employed in the setting

  • They are allergic to dander or animal fur

The therapist looks at  the level of hyperactivity, impulsiveness  and aggression displayed by the client. This is to ensure that no harm is done to the therapy animal during a session.

What effect does AAT have on the animal?

Animals — especially dogs — if chosen well, enjoy the attention and stimulation they receive from therapy work. This said, there is a possibility that the animal may burnout. This is something the animal handler and  mental health practitioner must be careful about. It is important to assess the animal for stress levels and have an idea about their physical health before and after each session. This way it can be assured that the sessions are fruitful for both the client and therapy animal. “For example, a dog who is calm and enjoys attention, touch and affection from an individual will enjoy sitting in on a therapy session for she is being rewarded with something she likes as she works alongside a mental health professional.” says Citizen K9, canine behaviorist and trainer.

AAT in India

AAT has only recently started gaining popularity in India. There is a lack of understanding among people that limits newly trained animal-assisted therapists from putting their practice to full use. They end up spending a considerable amount of time in raising awareness. The absence of a governing body poses to be a problem. It is critical to ensure that the animal, the therapist, and the handler have received adequate training and work well as a team.

This article has been written with inputs from Shruti Chakravarty a mental health practitioner, Shilpa Raghavan an animal assisted therapist and Citizen K9, a canine behaviorist and trainer.