Many people claim that dogs are man’s best friend because of their unconditional love, but science has proven that dogs, and other animals, can also offer powerful therapeutic effects through animal assisted therapy (AAT). Recently this therapy method was used to comfort people in the city of Las Vegas after they experienced a tragic shooting which left 58 dead and over 500 injured. The Independent reported that the Lutheran Church Charity’s K-9 Comfort Dogs, based in Illinois, visited various places in Las Vegas to help victims deal with the traumatic event.

CRC Health defines AAT as a therapy that “improves patients’ mental, physical, social and emotional functioning with the aid of animals.” The therapy can take place in many different settings, such as mental health facilities, hospitals, prisons, schools and nursing homes. Although dogs are a popular choice for AAT, many other animals can be used including horses, dolphins, rabbits and even llamas. Dr Linda Blokland from the Department of Psychology at the University of Pretoria says that there are “various modes of animal assisted therapy,” for example, “in equine assisted therapy, the client or patient will not mount the animal, but the interaction between the patient and the animal is used to reflect on at a later session together with the therapist. In other modes such as with children with disabilities or other psycho-social challenges, the patients might well sit on and even ride the horse.” Furthermore AAT involves “specific therapeutic goals, strategies and outcome measures” and is led by a qualified therapist, says CRC Health.

One of the main benefits of AAT is that people feel as though they can open up to animals because they are non-threatening and non-judgemental. Blokland notes that the sessions “can be less threatening psychologically as people have a tendency to relate to an animal with fewer defences needed”. According to Blokland, another positive aspect of AAT is that it is an “experiential mode of therapy”, therefore, the “feedback to the patient is immediate and direct”. Although AAT is less verbal than other forms of therapy, “most modes of AAT do involve a later discussion and reflection of the animal session,” says Blokland.

While there are ongoing debates about whether animals can really sense when humans are hurting, Blokland says that “animals do seem to respond to human emotion in appropriate ways”. Some animals, such as horses, are more sensitive to emotion and there are various theories that suggest why this may be so. Blokland says that animals such as horses are “prey-animals,” and are therefore, “more sensitive to picking up dangers and cues from the environment.” Other theories focus on the “socialising aspect of the long-time relationship between horses and humans,” which has enabled horses to grow to “understand” human emotions.

The Organization for Human-Animal Interaction Research (OHAIRE), which is a research group led by Dr Maggie O’Haire at Purdue University, has done extensive research with respect to the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and autism using animals. OHAIRE says that PTSD is an extremely difficult disorder to treat, but that some veterans who suffer from PTSD have service dogs that are trained to instil “a sense of confidence, safety and independence on a day-to-day basis”. The service dog can serve “as a physical barrier between the veteran and approaching strangers” and even wake the veteran up from nightmares explains OHAIRE. Although AAT cannot “cure” autism it can potentially yield positive outcomes for people with autism such as “increases in social interaction, communicative [behaviours], positive emotions, and motor control for some individuals”. Blokland says that while AAT does seem as though it is becoming increasingly popular, it does obviously have “different requirements from conventional therapy” such as stables and specially trained therapists. This means that it can be a fairly costly form of therapy. Blokland notes that while AAT has “been well used overseas for some time,” it is “starting to take root here in South Africa”.

Illustration: Rhodeen Davies

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