Animal-assisted therapy has become an important tool in many types of therapy. Originally used only in hospitals and nursing homes, its use has grown into other venues as the therapeutic advantages are realized. Studies show animal-assisted therapy applications to be vast, limited only by imagination and resources.
Do Labradoodles make good therapy dogs? Australian Labradoodles possess such wonderful qualities which make them a good companion - these same characteristics also make them excellent candidates for therapy dogs. To become a therapy dog, you must assess your Labradoodles' particular temperament, social and emotional skills and needs, and provide training based on that assessment.
Here are Big Rock Labradoodles, we are very proud to say that several of our dogs are either certified, or working toward therapy certifications, both in Canada and in the United States.
Therapy Dog Qualities
Not all dogs make good therapy dogs and not all dogs are appropriate for all therapy
dog activities. For example, some dogs do not make good visitors at hospitals due to
slick floors and noise levels. However, they may make wonderful visitors for shut-ins.
A vital first step is determining your dog's personality. Determining your dog's
personality will help you identify the types of therapy activities your dog is best suited
for and the type of training you will need to do. A good veterinarian, behaviourist, or
the trainer will be able to help you assess your dog's personality and determine what
activities would be best for your dog.
A therapy animal's most important characteristic is its temperament. They are
friendly, gentle and patient, and at ease with strangers. Basic obedience is a must.
Training includes making eye contact with your dog so that you easily have their
attention in any situation. You need to be able to keep your dog from pulling you
or another person, should you turn the leash over to them. Basic obedience helps
you to teach your puppy to respond on the first command, how to interact with
positive rewards, and how to have your puppy give you their attention when needed.
Therapy animals must enjoy human contact and excessive petting, and be comfortable
around healthcare equipment. Species that are normally trained, such as dogs, must
have mastered basic obedience skills. Therapy animals are best known for bringing
comfort, affection and happiness to people in confined living situations, whether they
are in a hospital for a short stay or living in an assisted living home.
Therapy dogs also serve in many other capacities, including helping people with learning
difficulties, assisting medical professionals in providing mental and physical therapy, and
bringing comfort to people recovering from crisis. In all their activities, therapy animals
are unconditionally accepting of those they visit.
The Healing Effects of Therapy Animals
Spending time with animals produces marked improvements in humans, affecting the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of their well-being. Stress leads to an overproduction of stress hormones, and in-turn increased blood pressure, heart rate, and a chance of heart attack and stroke. As you will see in the list, below, a visit with a therapy animal does much to reverse the effects of stress.
Visiting with an animal can reduce anxiety without the need for medication, and elicit positive reminiscing in clients with dementia. Therapy animal teams frequently witness measurable improvements, for example when visiting with chemotherapy patients in order to lower their blood pressure to a level acceptable for treatment. Here are just some of the healing effects of therapy animal visits:
Decrease in stress and anxiety, including that from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Decrease in depression, loneliness and feelings of isolation and aggressive behaviours
Increase in socialization with an outward focus, including opportunities for laughter and a sense of happiness and well-being
Increase in mental stimulation, attention skills, and verbal interactions
Increase in spirit, self-esteem, and feeling of acceptance, enabling a patient to further participate in mental and physical therapy; to be more involved in group activities; and to accept social and emotional support
Decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and the stress hormone cortisol
Increase in hormones associated with health and feeling of well-being, including beta-endorphin, beta-phenylethylamine, dopamine, oxytocin, prolactin and serotonin
Increase in the level of fitness by providing stimulus for exercise, with improvement in activities in which they are limited
Improvement in motor skills including standing balance, wheelchair and other physical skills
In addition, the benefits listed above may result in a decrease in a person's need for medications.
Training and Evaluation
If your animal is a well-behaved dog, it may not need additional training. Therapy dogs simply have to be obedient, tolerant, and social.
If you are unsure if your "best friend" is ready for therapy dog work, the CKC's Canine Good Neighbour Program is a good place to start. Most therapy dog evaluations are similar to or an extension of CKC's test.
If your dog needs additional training, check to see if a local therapy dog organization offers a training program or can refer you to one. In Canada, you can visit Canada's Guide to Dogs - Working Dogs.
You might also find this information appearing on the Pet Partners' website helpful.
Training for the handler differs greatly with different organizations. In a Pet Partners' evaluation, the performance of the handler carries as much weight as that of the animal.
Where Therapy Animals Serve
Most people think of hospitals and retirement homes when they think of therapy animals. In fact, therapy animals serve in a wide variety of venues, and the number of ways in which they help people is equally great and varied. Working with very ill children, Alzheimer's patients, or in a hospice sounds like a wonderful way to serve, but if dealing with such circumstances is difficult for you, know that there will be others that will do well with them.
Find a venue for your therapy animal work that you and your animal will be comfortable with and enjoy, and you'll be able to give the best you have to offer.
Hospitals offer a special opportunity to help people through difficult times. Patients appreciate a warm and loving distraction from their pain and worries, as well as the depression and boredom that can result from a long hospital stay. And you will find that family members are every bit as appreciative. Not only because you are comforting their loved ones, but because they are also going through difficult times and appreciate a break from it themselves.
Waiting rooms provide another opportunity to serve. Family and friends spend hour upon hour waiting during a patient's surgery, all the while worrying about the outcome.
Hospitals require strict adherence to sanitation guidelines, including hand sanitizing before and after each visit. When animals are placed on a bed, they are placed on a clean sheet or towel used just for that visit. You must also be very careful not to disturb a patient's injury or medical equipment such as IV tubing.
Retirement Homes, Assisted Living Homes, Nursing Homes and Hospices
The distinction between retirement homes, assisted living homes, nursing homes and hospices is important in that each represents a different group of clients, although the lines are not always clearly drawn. In each of these types of facilities, you may visit clients in their rooms and/or visit with a group of clients in a family room. Often those living in such facilities have little outside contact, and your visit may be the highlight of their week.
Retirement homes generally support independent living and have the air of a senior citizen centre. Assisted living homes provide services such as meals and housekeeping, and assist residents in daily living. Many have a special unit to provide for those with dementia.
Nursing homes provide all the amenities of assisted living homes, with the addition of skilled nursing care. Hospices provide specialized healthcare that focuses on relieving suffering for patients who are nearing the end of their lives.
Mental and Physical Therapy
While there are many different ways in which therapy animal work is conducted, a significant distinction is made for those activities in which a health professional is directly involved. The term animal-assisted activities (AAA) is used to describe activities which involve only the handler, their animal, and the client. Examples include visits to patients in hospitals and residents in retirement homes.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), on the other hand, is conducted by a health professional who uses the animal in providing their service to the client. A session includes the health professional, the client, a therapy animal and its handler.
AAT further differs from AAA in that the sessions are designed to achieve specific goals, and are documented by the health professional to record activity and progress.
In mental therapy, the animal is seen as a friend and ally, thus presenting a safe atmosphere for sharing. Therapists work toward goals such as improving memory, concentration and problem solving, and reducing depression and anxiety. In physical therapy, clients are motivated to improve motor skills, mobility and balance through exercises such as brushing the animal or walking it.
Stress Release Clinics
The use of therapy animals in stress release clinics has become popular on college and university campuses and is now becoming increasingly popular with high schools and even businesses. In educational institutions, these clinics are used primarily to reduce stress and depression in students studying particularly difficult departmentals, or studying for final exams. Visits with therapy animals have been reported by students to serve as a more healthy method of stress relief, as opposed to stereotypical alternatives such as binge drinking or drug abuse.
Businesses hold stress release clinics during difficult periods in their business cycle, for example an accounting firm might hold a clinic during tax season.
Animal-Assisted Reading Programs
When children read to others, it not only helps improve their reading, vocabulary and comprehension skills but also their confidence and self-esteem. But children with poor reading skills can be intimidated, too self-conscious and fearful of ridicule to participate in classroom reading activities.
In animal-assisted reading programs in schools, libraries and other facilities, children read to animals in a safe, non-judgmental environment. They are able to relax and concentrate on the task, while the animal's handler is present to help with reading and comprehension.
Animal-Assisted Crisis Response
Therapy animal organizations that specialize in crisis response are invited by local authorities to place therapy dog teams in areas recovering from the crisis. The teams provide comfort, emotional support, and hope to the victims of the crisis, as well as to emergency responders and the staff of other crisis response organizations.
Victims of a crisis often shut down emotionally and stop thinking clearly. The presence of a dog, and especially physical contact with one, can help calm a person, allowing them to think more clearly. They are then in a better position to communicate their needs to those working to support them.
Crisis response teams are specially trained to work in stressful, unpredictable environments.