Animal assisted therapy with dogs, horses and even dolphins is becoming more widely accepted as a form of therapeutic treatment for those with disabilities, but many medical professionals still do not recognize it as a valid form of therapy.
“Petting a dog changes your neurochemistry,” said Bonnie Biggs, vice president of Love on a Leash in San Diego, “Your body emits oxytocin which is a hormone that is associated with calming, safety and overall well being.”
Love on A Leash is a national non-profit organization that offers owners of service dogs to volunteer their time and services to local facilities. The organization has therapy cats, animals and dogs. The core mission, as stated on their website, is to “brighten someone’s day.” Biggs says she calls her dogs “little oxy bottles.”
Along with visiting disabled persons, Love on A Leash also visits facilities like libraries to help children learn to read.
VIDEO: Children read to Love on a Leash therapy dogs at Encinitas Public Library.
Rescue animals give back
For the past 30 years, The San Diego Humane Society and Society for Prevention and Cruelty to Animals has been providing animal assisted therapy with a variety of animals to people in need through the Pet Assisted Therapy (PAT) program.
People of all ages in convalescent homes, mental health facilities, hospitals, abused children’s homes and juvenile detention centers and other facilities get time with the PAT animals. The rescued PAT animals range from guinea pigs, rats, rabbits to available puppies and kittens.
“These rescue animals bring back positive childhood memories for most, ” said Judith Eisenerg, San Diego Humane Society PAT program coordinator.
Eisenberg says there are challenges for the San Diego Human Society and SPCA in regards to perception.
“Anything involving animals seems to be taken less seriously,” Eisenberg said. “Even for the SPCA, our Humane Officers are taken less seriously and are not as respected as another type of officer.”
Therapeutic riding slow to get recognition
While dogs are the most commonly known service animal, Robin Pawl uses horses to treat patients from ages 2 through to adulthood with disabilities like autism, down syndrome, attention deficit disorder and developmental delay. Although she is a registered equine therapist through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), she doesn’t get reimbursed for her work.
“Health Insurance doesn’t recognize therapeutic riding, so most hear about it from others and pay out of pocket,” said Robin Pawl, owner of the Magic Horse Therapeutic Riding Center in Lakeside, Calif.
The cost can range into the thousands each month, but many families are willing to pay that because therapeutic riding brings results they have never seen before.
“Kids that haven’t walked before have walked. Kids that have never talked before begin talking to families directly. It’s life changing, “ Pawl said.
AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Magic Horse Therapeutic Riding Center student Tristen overcomes obstacles of autism with the help of horse, Prince.
Pawl attributes most of the success not to the physical aspect of horseback riding, but to the emotional connection between people and the animals.
“Horses don’t judge you, they’re accepting. If you bump into them they don’t get mad,” Pawl said. “It’s easier for people to look a horse in the eye.”
One study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders showed therapeutic riding can increase social skills for disabled patients. Without continual therapy, this increase diminishes quickly.
Effect of service on the animals
Nedra Abramson, a local animal reiki master who specializes in healing therapy animals, says she has encountered emotional changes in therapy dogs in extreme situations, where certain dogs have harbored the emotional trauma of the patients they work with.
Abramson described a dog that had been working with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. After working with the servicemen, the dog began to show similar PTSD symptoms.
“She was known for being a calm, relaxed dog before [service] and after, things like small noises terrified her,” Abramson said. “The change in behavior was dramatic.”
Animals, like people, are energetic beings and animals often harbor the feelings and energy of people around them, according to Abramson. She says this transfer of energy is part of the reason animal assisted therapy is so successful.
“Animals love you for who you are, they don’t judge,” Abramson said. “Because animals have this innate ability to love unconditionally, people find a sense of calm with animals that they don’t normally find with people.”
“There’s ways to prove the energetic connection between animals and people, but the Western world of medicine has been slow to accept the concept,” Abramson said.
Biggs shares Abrahmson’s belief that therapy has an effect on the animals. Biggs said the most noticeable toll she has seen her dog (Koshi) go through is when a patient has died.
“You can sense a feeling of loss that the dog feels,” Biggs said.
Abramson and Biggs both say that owners need to be aware of the effects service has on the animals in order to protect the animals’ emotions.
“I try to limit the visits for my dog (Koshi) to one per day,” Biggs said. “I also try to break up the visits so that if she visits someone who is very ill, I take her to a lighter visit, like an elementary school where kids read to her.”
Despite the stress service places on the animals, Abramson and Biggins say the animals feel pride and purpose.
“They choose this, they know what they’re doing,” Abramson said.