The benefits of therapy animals

Photo by Rachelle Baird

Even Lucy can be a therapy animal, she is very good with toddlers.

Many people are aware of service animals and what they do. There are guide dogs and dogs who can even detect when a medical episode is about to happen, such as a seizure.

But they may not know animals are also used for therapy.  These animals can ease anxiety, stress and depression.

Robin Voisey, a veterinary technician and professor of Durham College’s Animal Care program, said therapy animals provide emotional support and will visit schools, hospices, hospitals and even occupational therapy places.  She said any dog can be a therapy dog.

She said services dogs are with their owners full-time and are highly trained working dogs. Some wear vests indicating not to touch them because they have a job to do, and they are always on the job.

There have been a few service dogs seen around campus, Voisey said. At the Whitby campus where she teaches she has seen one dog.

Voisey said dogs are sometimes brought in to help children read. If a child is nervous to read or struggles with reading, simply placing a dog beside them helps them read better because they feel the unconditional love.

Some people are unaware of other animals which are used in therapy. Cats, small companion animals, and even horses are used as well. Voisey, a horse owner herself, said there are benefits of using horses in therapy.

Voisey is involved with a program called Equine Assistant Learning (EAL). It is a program which uses horses as therapy.

“I’ve seen just mind-blowing changes,” she said. “Where someone feels comfortable enough to allow the layers of onions to peel from them, and with horses. The horse sends out unconditional love and things happen to the person that are completely out of their control.”

Voisey said one time she met a woman who was nervous of horses, who had never been near a horse before and was actually quite frightened.

“The horse just took its time with the woman, and the woman burst into tears because she had never had anyone take their time with her like the way this horse did,” she said.

She said rats can be considered service animals, meaning they can be with their owners all the time, much like the dogs.

She said rats are loving and clean animals. They will sit in their owners’ sleeves and help them throughout their day.

St. John Ambulance is a non-profit organization with a therapy dog program. It visits long-term care facilities, hospitals, schools, and provides companionship for those who need it.

Marsha Seens is the community services coordinator for St. John Ambulance. “We don’t have a standard breed,” she said. “Goldens and Labs are very common. We also have a lot Golden Doodles and a lot of mixed breeds.”

Seens said animals must be calm at the start of the program, over the age of one, and cannot be over the age of ten. They also have to be well socialized, behaved, and walk well on a leash.

To qualify for the program, the dog must start off with an orientation, then an “interview” and screening process, and finally an evaluation. She said it can take up to a couple of months for the dogs to be qualified and not all will qualify for the program.

Seens has seen changes in people who have been involved in the program. She said students who have been worried about exams have gone into them with confidence after being with these dogs. She said children with disabilities or challenges who have high energy levels will calm down when the dog visits them in the classroom.

When St. John visits long-term care facilities she said there are changes in the person’s demeanour, and the animals make them feel so much better, especially if they cannot get out due to health issues. She said just having these animals come in is beneficial.