How does pet therapy work?

When a person decides that they’d like to incorporate pet therapy into their specific treatment plan, a selection process for a suitable animal can get under way. It is best to start with a treating doctor or therapist as they will need to be involved in safely incorporating the practice into a treatment plan.

From there a trained handler / volunteer (most commonly an animal’s actual owner) and an animal will be worked into a schedule for regular sessions. These sessions will be guided by a treating doctor or therapist in such a way that best meets treatment or recovery goals. The pet handler will ensure that everyone involved in these sessions is of sound understanding when it comes to the proper handling of the animal, ensuring safety for both a recipient and the therapy animal.

For an animal to become a therapy pet, set requirements will need to be met. These requirements often involve:

  • Giving the animal a full physical examination at the vet and ensuring that he or she is properly vaccinated or immunised. An animal must be healthy and free of diseases or illnesses in order to be fit to work as a therapy pet.
  • Attend and pass an obedience training course along with the dedicated handler. An evaluation of an animal’s overall behaviour and temperament (response to a handler and others) will also need to be approved.
  • A handler will be required to attend and pass an instructional course which teaches positive interaction between the therapy animal and other people.
  • Receive a credible certification from a sponsoring organisation.

A therapy animal will need to be able to master basic obedience skills and through training courses, will be tested on their reactions to specific interactive things. This can include being petted by more than one individual simultaneously, being hugged or walking through a crowd of people. Can a therapy animal still respond to their handler when promoted even with an array of distractions? The sounds and smells of therapy or hospital environments are also important for a therapy animal to be familiar with, and comfortable with too.

For a therapy animal to have the desired effect on humans, it must not only be tolerant of interactions, but also enjoy the company of people and the manner in which they are engaged. If an animal has an aptitude for therapy work and enjoys affection, chances are high that the desired beneficial effect of involving them in the first place will likely be achieved.

A handler must also be well aware of maintaining safety and levels of comfort for the animal, to do this they must know their animal very well, and what triggers behavioural or instinctive changes. A handler will need to be alert to things that will likely stress an animal out or spark a behavioural change.

When all requirements have been met, approval for pet therapy may be given. Animals are then assigned according to set needs of individuals who may best benefit from sessions of interaction with them. Type, age, size, breed and inherent nature and instinctive behaviours are usually taken into consideration when determining ‘a match’ for a specific purpose or treatment plan.

A meet-and-greet session may be arranged to introduce both a recipient and the therapy animal. This session is not likely to be an official therapy or treatment session, and as such will take place as an informal meeting. Once a therapy animal and recipient are happy with one another, sessions become structured and more formalised. Treating doctors and therapists may introduce set goals for each session that all involved will be made aware of.

Group sessions can also be arranged as part of a treatment plan. A support group may wish to incorporate a therapy animal into their regular sessions. In this instance, an animal may attend a meeting and be allowed to roam free among the attending group. Many groups find that the calming presence of an animal has a positive effect on attendees, soothing the atmosphere and relaxing all participating. This calming effect can also be a very effective teaching tool, which therapists can harness. When it is noted that interacting with a therapy animal calms anxiety, a therapist can hone in on that sensation, making treatment attendees more aware of it and encouraging them to tap into that feeling when a need arises in other environments and settings where the pet may not be present.

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