Dogs are known to be “man’s best friend”. They offer companionship and loyalty, and the exploration of this bond led to the discovery of the healing power of dogs/pets. In 1960, Dr Boris Levinson, an American child psychologist, found how his dog had a positive effect on kids with disabilities. He did mention it as an accidental discovery – he left his dog, Jingles, with a young disabled boy, and when he returned, he was surprised to find the boy interacting with the dog. This is where and how dog therapy evolved, and, there have been many people who have reaped the benefits of this therapy. Dog/animal therapy is the utilisation of dogs as a therapeutic approach to facilitate healing by providing comfort and companionship to kids and adults with disability and other chronic illnesses.
A study conducted by Yale University on trained therapy dogs revealed that these therapies have a positive effect on kids as it could improve mood and reduce anxiety. “What is exciting is that the study gets closer to answering questions of whether there is something special about dogs in terms of their ability to help children recover from stress. They are doing something better than just another common coping strategy, for dog therapy involves tactile stimulation, and, that merits additional research so that we can build effective and efficient interventions,” said lead study author Molly K Crossman. A landmark study in 2015 by Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York City was the first to show the benefits of animal-assisted therapy with cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.
However, not every canine can be a therapy dog, so let’s learn how a dog is labelled as one. The breed does not matter, the fact that is accountable is individual personality/nature and how the person handles the dog. Even a street dog can be a good therapy dog with the right training in the right environment. The standards that need to be considered are:
The right age: As the years pass by, dogs tend to become more sensitive and responsible, younger pups are mostly hyperactive and reluctant towards any kind of training. So, a dog above five or six years could be the ideal age.
Bonding with humans: Many dogs have a special bonding with the owners but are usually uncomfortable with strangers. This trait would lead to aggression and would not be right for therapy. Being a therapy dog is to encounter many strangers, hence, it is important for the owner to decide if the dog can really go for such a commitment. It is an emotional connection that is the therapeutic part of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), so, it is a necessity for a dog to be able to bond and be comfortable around a stranger.
Stability and being non-reactive to sounds: It does not matter how well the training goes, a dog has to learn to be stable and not show any signs of anxiety to any kind of sounds as large medical equipments or any other unexpected chaotic and noisy situations that might arise during sessions in a hospital or a care centre.
Clean and healthy: Timely health checkups by the vet and to be deemed healthy is a necessity to be a therapy dog.
Animal-assisted therapy has not been as popular in India as in most Western countries and a few developed Asian countries. The Animal Angels Foundation based in Mumbai is the only non-profit in India introducing animal assisted intervention for the sick, elderly, and the disabled. With dedicated dogs and volunteers, it has been able to bring about awareness of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy. This awareness needs to increase across the country for the promotion of human-animal interaction and the mutual benefits associated with it.