Paws for Thought: Exploring the Benefits of Pet Therapy

Posted by Jackie Ly on

dog owner hugging their dog

Ever felt the comforting weight of a furry friend at the end of a tough day? Our pets have that magic touch that seemingly melts away all our troubles by just being there.

That’s the essence of pet therapy—a unique approach to healing that uses the remarkable connection between humans and their four-legged companions.

What is pet therapy?

Pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), is when you employ a trained animal as a crucial component of treatment plans for individuals navigating the complexities of mental, and in some cases, medical conditions. It’s like having a walking, barking prescription for the blues!

Now, therapy dogs are different from service dogs and emotional support dogs.

Service dogs: Ever seen those videos of dogs who constantly boop their owners when their blood sugar’s too low? Service dogs are specifically trained to perform certain services. They can be guide, hearing, medical alert, and mobility dogs. Laws permit them to go anywhere with their owners.

Emotional support dogs: These dogs provide solace without specific behavioural expectations. They are intended as a form of comfort and support, which they give with their mere presence. They’re not on the same professional playing field as service dogs, so they can’t be brought just anywhere.

Therapy dogs: The stars of our show today are the jacks-of-all-trades. Therapy dogs are trained in basic obedience skills, but they don’t specialise in an area the way service dogs do. They can also serve other people beyond their owners, letting them spread joy wherever they go.

When to use pet therapy

Feeling stressed, anxious, or just having a bad day? Pet therapy to the rescue! Like natural remedies and therapies, you can always count on the healing effect that comes naturally from your canine companions when you’re in a pinch.

In general, pet therapy may be a helpful form of intervention for individuals who experience:

  1. Stress - Some universities have in-house therapy dogs at their counselling offices for students really feeling the heat of the semester.
  2. Mental illnesses - People who experience anxiety and depression as well as those diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia may be prescribed several sessions with therapy dogs by their therapists.
  3. Addiction - Pet therapy has often been used to support people recovering from substance abuse by easing their anxieties.
  4. PTSD - Because therapy dogs have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, they’re great additions to treatment plans for people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, such as veterans and victims of abuse.
  5. Emotional and behavioural problems in children - Dogs and children make for great companions. A dog can be relied on as a form of comfort when kids get upset or are diagnosed with behavioural issues.
  6. Alzheimer’s disease - Therapy dogs take cues from Alzheimer’s patients during sessions. They may either sit and listen patiently when the patients feel like telling stories, or may entertain the patients by performing tricks and commands.
  7. Some medical conditions - For those battling cancer or undergoing dialysis, the comforting presence of a therapy dog can be a welcome distraction and a source of moral support.

While pet therapy can be used for just about any situation, it might not be the cup of kibble for those afraid of pets or those that are allergic to them. 

Benefits of pet therapy

Not only can pet therapy have wonderous effects on your physical health, but it also works to improve your mental health, too. It’s like having a life coach…only fluffier.

Increases physical activity: Get those muscles working! Walking or even just playing around with therapy dogs helps you stay in shape and keep your spirits high.

Improves self-esteem: Even with non-therapy dogs, you can always be certain that your pup will love you no matter who you are or what you do. That can be an incredibly comforting feeling for those struggling with self-esteem issues.

Reduces stress levels: Whether it’s playing tug of war, engaging in training sessions, or simply just sitting back and watching a movie, you can bet that pet therapy is the way to bring your stress metre down.

Decreases blood pressure: It’s true—the way to a person’s heart is through their dog. Numerous studies have proved that having a dog, or just interacting with one regularly, can bring down your blood pressure with the calming effect these furry companions bring.

Improved moods: Maybe it’s the shiny and irresistible puppy eyes, or maybe it’s the feeling of burying your face in their fur. Either way, interacting with a dog during pet therapy sessions puts a smile on your face that’ll stay for the entire day.

Is your dog a good candidate as a therapy dog?

Think your dog might rock it under the therapeutic spotlight? Before turning in your dog’s resume, here are some things you need to know about therapy dogs:

  • They must be adults - Puppies won’t do, as they’re not developed enough to follow commands and ignore the urge to play.
  • They must have basic obedience skills - No, your dog doesn’t need to know how to play dead or learn how to sing. They need to at least understand “sit”, “stay” or “wait”, and “come”.
  • Has a social temperament - This means your dog is generally very calm, and can sit around for hours at a time. If you see that your dog enjoys attention from people other than you, that’s a good sign that they’d make a good therapy dog.

Like humans, therapy dogs have a retirement age, too. Keep that in mind before you launch your dog’s therapy career.

Dogs benefit from working as a therapy dog, too! From the mental stimulation during training to the socialisation that happens meeting more people and more dogs, pet therapy can be a great way to keep your pup’s tail wagging.

Pet therapy is proof that the pawprints on our hearts go far beyond the surface. It’s a process that leads to incredible transformations occurring on both ends of the leash.

When the going gets tough, it’s always a comfort to remember that there’s at least one person—and dog—that believes that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. So strap on that harness and keep going!

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