Animal-Assisted Therapy Shows Healing Power of Human-Animal Bond


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Liz Stallings visits patients at the John Muir Behavioral Health Center every day. But Liz isn’t who patients are most excited to see. It’s Chloe, her 4-year-old Cockapoo.

“There’s nowhere I go that she doesn’t create smiles,” says Stallings, the COO of John Muir Behavioral Health Center, which treats children and adults with psychiatric or behavioral problems, as well as alcohol and chemical dependency problems.

Chloe visits approximately 150 patients a day. That interaction with a friendly, gentle animal provides positive physical and emotional benefits for patients. “It really connects with our patients’ strengths,” Stallings says. “It engenders healthy discussion not around people’s illness, but about their wellness.”

Chloe is part of an increasing number of animals used in hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers, as a form of treatment - called Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT).

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

For patients at the John Muir Behavioral Center, the benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy are evident. “You see 250-pound football players with tattoos just melt when they see Chloe,” she says.

“Another patient told me Chloe was the only part he remembered about his detoxification process,” Stallings adds. “She helped him realize he could get back into the world and get on with his recovery.”

Animal-assisted therapy helps patients:

  • Manage anxiety
  • Restore trust
  • Create a sense of belonging

“There’s art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy,” Stallings says. “This is just another way to express our feelings.”

Research also validates the clinical and psychological benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy. “Research demonstrates that when people interact with a companion animal, their blood pressure and heart rate lowers and they feel more relaxed and less stressed,” says Rebecca Johnson, PhD, RN, FAAN, Director, Research Center for Human Animal Interaction, MU College of Veterinary Medicine.

In a survey conducted from 1996-1998, Therapy Dogs International (TDI), an organization that tests and registers therapy dogs and their handlers, found that TDI programs in nursing homes, hospitals, and other institutions were beneficial to patients, clients, and even staff.

“Data indicated an overwhelming perception that patients benefitted in a variety of ways, including increased socialization, verbalization, alertness, and positive mood alterations,” the report states.

“Staff were reported to benefit by increased morale, using dog visits as a break in their work, and being able to observe patients interacting with the dogs,” it continues.

What Makes a Good Candidate for Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Because of their adaptability to a variety of settings and situations, dogs are most commonly used for animal-assisted therapy. However, cats, as well as rabbits, miniature horses, and birds, can also provide the same benefits. “A lot depends on the patient—what kind of animal they like,” Johnson says.

Ultimately, it’s the bond with the animal, not the animal itself where patients find comfort. “Caring for something else and it caring for you can be found in a lot of different animals,” Stallings says.

Not every animal is a good candidate for Animal-Assisted Therapy. Good therapy animals must be controllable, reliable and predictable. “The animal must have even temperament, not be easily frightened, and be tolerant of all people,” Johnson says.

Several programs certify therapy animals:

  • Pet Partners - evaluates animals and their handlers on 12 skills exercises and 10 aptitude exercises including petting, walking through a crowd, reaction to distractions, responsiveness to commands
  • Therapy Dogs International – dogs must complete the 15 steps of the AKC/CGC Test and additional TDI requirements. Steps include accepting a friendly stranger, walking on a loose leash, reaction to other dogs, reactions to medical equipment, and reaction to children.
  • Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs – grades dogs on exercises such as socialization, interactions in a crowd, and responsiveness to commands.

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy enhances the lives and touches the hearts of people with special medical, mental, or physical needs. Interaction with the animal allows patients to connect in a happy, healthy way.

“Everything has to have something that needs them, to take care of them, whether it’s a pet or a fish, an animal that loves you,” Liz Stallings says.

Stallings witnesses it every day at John Muir Behavioral Health Center. “People remember Chloe’s name for years,” she says, laughing. “They don’t remember mine.”

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