Pet owners have always known that being around their animal companions helps them feel happy and relaxed. But pets can do more than just help put us at ease--they can provide a level of therapy that can't be found anywhere else.
The healing power of animals has become widely recognized over the past 20 years, although organizations like Therapy Dogs International in Flanders, N.J., has been certifying therapy dogs since the 1970s. In the 1980s, doctors and nurses began to really notice the positive effects visiting dogs were having on hospitalized patients and their families.
Today, animals of many different kinds are being used in a variety of situations to give both comfort and therapy.
- Disaster sites. Dogs are used to bring comfort to people recovering from natural disasters, such as tornados or earthquakes, or man-made tragedies, such as bombings or mass shootings. Traumatized individuals find the having a dog nearby to be comforting, and are more likely to open up to mental health professionals when a dog is around.
- Assisted living facilities. Dogs, cats and birds visit assisted living facilities to give companionship to pet-loving residents who can no longer keep their own pets. These animals are often a welcome sight to lonely seniors.
- Libraries. One way to encourage kids to read is to bring a dog into the mix. In "read to a dog" programs, therapy dogs listen quietly while children read to them at local libraries.
- Hospitals. Certified therapy dogs and cats make visits to hospitals to bring joy to both patients and their families. The mere presence of pets in a hospital setting creates a calming effect.
- Hospice facilities. Patients in hospice care facilities receive visits from dogs and cats to help lighten their day and distract them from their illness.
- Nursing homes. Visiting dogs and cats cheer up residents of nursing homes with regular visits, allowing people to pet them and interact with both the pet and the handler. Some facilities have their own live-in therapy animals.
- Shelters. Battered women and their children staying in shelters can find comfort in visits from therapy dogs and cats. Visiting pets help brighten the mood, and bring joy to people during a difficult time in their lives.
- Funeral homes. Therapy dogs are used in funeral homes to help grieving families. People who have just suffered the loss of a loved one can find comfort while petting a dog.
- Prisons. Animals are used in prison settings to help teach animal training skills to inmates. Ever seen the show Pitbulls & Parolees? At the same time, the animal gets something out it by receiving training. Dogs can be taught to be service dogs for the handicapped, while wild horses are tamed and taught to be ridden.
- Veterans programs. Dogs and horses are used to help war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Emotional Support Dogs offer companionship and comfort to people dealing with the symptoms of PTSD. Veterans suffering from PTSD are also taught to give basic training to wild horses recently rounded up from the range. This is good for the veteran, and helps the horse become more adoptable.
Animals have an amazing ability to bring comfort to people in need, and those who work with therapy animals will keep finding new ways for these dogs, cats, horses, and other creatures to help.