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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Horses, Dogs, Alpacas:: What Defines a Therapy Animal?

Aug 03, 2014 04:11AM ● By Donna Gleason

Most of us have become familiar with therapy animals such as horses, dogs, and cats. However, with the right skill set and temperament, rabbits, birds, guinea pigs, llamas, alpacas and even donkeys can also become therapy animals. Pet Partners, formerly referred to as Delta Society, embraces all of the above species of animals into their program. They have recognized the importance of the human-animal bond for over 35 years. In order to understand if a pet may be a good therapy animal, it is necessary to explore the power of the human-animal bond and the qualities every good therapy animal should possess.

What is a Therapy Animal?

Although several states have laws defining therapy animals, they are not legally defined by federal law as are service animals. Therapy animals, usually personal pets, work with their handlers to provide healing contact to people, but are not limited to working with those with disabilities. Federal laws have no provisions for people to be accompanied by therapy animals in places of public accommodation that have “no pet” policies.

The Human Animal Bond

Nearly 30 years ago, Alan Beck, a Purdue University psychologist, and  Aaron Katcher, a psychiatrist with the University of Pennsylvania, measured what physically happens to a person when interacting with a friendly and familiar animal. They found that the individual’s blood pressure lowered, heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed. Current studies indicate that interactions with an animal reduces stress. There is now evidence that it also brings about changes in blood chemistry (reducing the number of stress-related hormones). Additionally, a study published in Canine Corner in 2009 found that interacting with an animal has a faster positive psychological effect upon the body than taking stress-related prescription drugs.

Brad Cole, Pet Partners’ team handler and founder of K9 First Responders, and his dog Spartacus have been actively deployed many times to provide crisis response support to those in need. One of Cole’s most powerful moments, highlighting the strength of the human-animal bond, was when they were asked to attend a victim’s wake. “Spartacus was asked to be with the mother and father while viewing their child’s body for the first time after the incident. It was powerful and emotional watching Spartacus bring a small measure of calmness to that sad occasion,” said Cole.

Qualities of Good Therapy Animals

Animals that perform therapy work need to have a certain level of training and obedience skills. Organizations such as Pet Partners, Therapy Dog International and Good Dog Foundation offer team evaluations to assure that the animals registered with them possess certain skills and are able to behave under different situations. Most major therapy dog organizations also have health requirements and age restrictions (one-year old or older). In addition, to developing a specific skill-set, there are several intrinsic qualities of a good therapy animal, including:

• Being friendly, patient and calm 

• Inspiring confidence and being confident

•  Being predictable and reliable

• Enjoying going on therapy visits and meeting people

•  Understanding what it takes to be a good therapy animal and the human-animal bond can help you decide if your pet has those qualities to do therapy work. And remember, even if your pet may not make the perfect therapy animal, he or she still offers you and your family the benefits of the miracle of the human-animal bond each and every day.

Donna Gleason, owner of TLC Dog Trainer, resides in Sherman. She is a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA) and IAABC certified dog behavior consultant (CDBC) with a master’s degree in behavior modification. She offers professional in-home dog training and group puppy/basic obedience classes. For more
information, call 203-241-4449 or visit TLCDogTrainer.com. See ad, page 54.