We’ve all heard of animal assisted therapy – or pet therapy – but what effect does it have on the animals? Well here I tell you about assisted animal therapy!
Many people think that using animals in this kind of work must be distressing for them, and that it should not be done. Having seen both sides of the work, I would like to explain what effect the therapy work has on the animals that we use, given the examples that I have been a part of.
In our therapy work, we do not just use cats and dogs. We believe that all animals can be therapeutic with the possible exception of insects and arachnids. Snake and certain lizards can all be therapeutic, as can tortoises. Other fluffy animals also have their worth, when it comes to helping people with their inner struggles.
What about animals with inner troubles though? How do we help them overcome their issues – nervousness, anxiety, previous mistreatment, mistrust etc? Well the opinion of most is that we mother them, protect them, allow them to have access to our love and our companionship only. To some degree that is true, but I am of the opinion that mothering them is just feeding their insecurities.
Initially, when we get an animal with issues (lets say a dog), we need to gain their trust and bond with them. This is the initial therapy – we teach them that they are no longer in a bad situation, that they are now within our protective grasp, loved, respected, secure. This is good for them, and we walk them and start to socialise them with other people and dogs that we trust. These interactions show in the dog, as it gains confidence and begins to enjoy life. After this though, I feel we need to go one step further – I am convinced of this since I started providing pet therapy services within the mental health sector.
Let me tell you about Beanz, our border collie. When Beanz arrived with us as an 18 month old ex-stray from Ireland, he had no confidence, no idea about what toys were for, he was scared of traffic and did not socialise very well. We would walk him, and each time he heard a vehicle he would drop to the floor, freeze and tremble. As bad as it felt, forcing him into the situation, we kept walking him – a 5 minute walk to the field would take 15 or 20 minutes – at the end of the day, he needed to be able to walk down a road.
We had no idea of Beanz’ background, but once he was on the field he had the time of his life – running and rounding up our other dog Pickle. Being a collie he would run forever, but it seemed the only thing Beanz wanted to do was round up any other animals he encountered – no interest in balls or Frisbees, just had to keep them all in the same area. From that we concluded that he had been a farm dog at some point.
The more we walked him the more confident he grew – it took time, a little bit at a time, small walks building into longer walks all down roads. Eventually he stopped dropping and cowered a little and trembled, and then with much encouragement and nurturing he finally started walking tall. Obstacle one was passed.
The next step was to get him playing. We tried encouraging him to play on his own, to play with other dogs – nothing. We tried and trie, then Beanz became a therapy dog, through the development of our business. Due to his mild temperament and generally happy demeanour, I was confident that he would be good with the people that he would be meeting.
At first he was nervous – all of these new people – but once he realised that all he would get would be adoration, his confidence began to grow. And grow it did, with each visit, he got happier and more playful – the patients at the hospitals were relentless, they just loved him and kept working on him. Then I was asked for a ball!
What on Earth was Beanz going to do with a ball? I thought. I smiled and produced a ball from my work bag, and watched. I told the patients that he did not know about toys, and that we had been trying to tempt him for some 12 months with no success at all. I said “You have no chance! But please, give it a go”.
Day 1 passed with Beanz looking rather quizzically at the thrower, shouting “FETCH!”. I laughed as I looked at his wagging tail, his stationery stance, and his smiley panty face. I told the occupational therapists who were with me – “They won’t manage it, he just isn’t interested!” I kept watching, laughing at Beanz, tongue hanging out the side of his face just looking adoringly at the frustrated patient. These guys though – they have determination and I have to admire them for their refusal to give up on Beanz. I drove away, with Beanz on the seat next to me, saying “I told ‘em mate, I told them they wouldn’t do it” and ruffled his ears.
Day 2 was about 7 days later – we arrived back, with new balls – as Beanz had stolen the ball from a table and ripped it to pieces!! The patients from last time arrived, SO pleased to see Beanz – he was fussed over and adored, and after several months of pet therapy, his confidence was unmovable as was his trust in and love of these patients he had grown to know. The beauty of animals is that as loyal as they are to their owner, they still love everyone – totally unconditionally – they really don’t care who you are or what you’ve done.
The patients, rather predictably asked for a ball, which I dutifully supplied with a smile and a knowing look! For 2 hours they threw that ball and yelled “FETCH! FETCH BEANZ! FETCH!” Then they changed their method. They started throwing the ball at Beanz’ mouth, and suddenly Beanz clicked – opened his mouth threw his head to the side and caught it out of the air. I stood open mouthed and shouted “DO IT AGAIN!” and they did, and more importantly Beanz did, in front of a very prestigious client, a large national organisation, I stood and I wept – floods of tears streaming down my face – I was SO happy for him, and he was SO proud of himself.
He acted like a puppy, smiling wagging his tail, excited by what he had learnt, what he had achieved, all of the extra adoration he got – Beanz just wanted to do it again. And he did – for the next 2 hours, they threw and he caught, throwing it further and further each time. It was such an emotional day and one I will never forget, for the reactions and the positive changes in Beanz that came on that day. Those people, as troubled as they may be, are an inspiration to us all – we could all be in their position, and it is only by circumstance that we aren’t.
The positive effect that they have had on my dog is out of this world, and I will always be eternally grateful to them for doing something in 2 days that we had attempted to do for 12 months and half given up on. It just proves that if you have determination then you can achieve anything. Beanz wanted to please, and wanted to play the game, and he did. Those people wanted to help Beanz, they felt sorry for him because he couldn’t play, and they did. They now have a friend for life, in both me and Beanz.
Now, Beanz plays regularly with balls, Frisbees, steals our other dog’s toys and gets really excited when he sees a ball – it really is the most awesome sight. Beanz also gets REALLY excited when he sees me getting ready to go to work in a morning, because he know where he is going – he wants to get ready for work too – he LOVES his work, and he loves the patients at the hospital who have helped him overcome this obstacle.
Pet therapy is an awesome profession to be in, it's so rewarding! It is also therapy for pets though – not only is it great to see the reaction of those receiving the pet therapy, but it is also wonderful to see the change in the pets, unbeknown to them, receiving their own form of therapy! I have seen this not only in Beanz, but also in rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas – I have seen our rabbit actually reach up and kiss needy patients – she KNEW what the patient required.
So next time you hear the words animal assisted therapy, and think 'mumbo jumbo', think and turn it around... it works not just for humans, but also for the animals who receive assisted animal therapy.
Critterish Allsorts undertake animal assisted therapy sessions, with their critters (who are all family pets), on an individual or group basis in your home, hospital, care home, foster home, or school. Visit their website for more information.This blog is written by Dale Preece-Kelly from Critterish Allsorts, if you would like to find out more about them check out our previous article 'Meet the Critterish Allsorts'.