By Dr. Becker
A trauma therapy dog named Hawk made history in Canada last year. He was allowed to accompany a young girl to court while she and her brother testified in a sexual assault trial.
Having Hawk in the courtroom gave the girl a sense of support and comfort, making the difficult situation a little bit easier. While there are three other trauma dogs in Canada, Hawk is the first to be used in a courtroom setting.1
The dog, a Lab, was trained by The Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), which loaned him to the Calgary Police Service. Sgt. Brent Hutt of the Calgary Police Service said of Hawk:2
“He comes and he’s well trained, he’s obedient, and he sits and people pet him. It’s really that easy.”
Animal-Assisted Therapy Is a Valuable Tool for Physical and Emotional Health
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is the notion that animals can help humans to overcome, or at least cope with, health problems (both physical and emotional). It may involve patients caring for an animal, as is often the case in equine therapy, or it can involve animals brought into health care settings to interact with patients individually or in groups.
For instance, encouraging research to date has shown that equine therapy (interaction with horses) improves symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients.3 Other research has found adults recovering from joint-replacement therapy who used AAT (canine therapy, in this case) used 50 percent less pain medication.4
It’s truly remarkable how many different health complaints AAT may benefit. For instance, dogs may be trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities, alert people who are deaf or diabetic facing hypoglycemia, or protect someone who is having a seizure.
According to Pet Partners, a non-profit organization that provides animal-assisted interactions, “AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.”5 For example, AAT programs may include any of the following goals:
Improve post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Improve fine motor skills Improve wheelchair skills Improve standing balance Increase verbal interactions between group members Increase attention skills (i.e., paying attention, staying on task) Develop leisure/recreation skills Increase self-esteem Reduce anxiety Reduce loneliness Increase vocabulary Aid in long- or short-term memory Improve knowledge of concepts such as size, color, etc. Improve willingness to be involved in a group activity Improve interactions with others Improve interactions with staff Increase exercise
Therapy Dogs Help with PTSD, Neurological Issues, and Even Test Anxiety
Therapy dogs have emerged as a promising form of support for people, particularly veterans, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not only are the dogs trained to bring a soldier out of a flashback, sense an approaching panic attack, and dial 911, they also help to restore veterans’ sense of responsibility, optimism, and self-awareness. In fact, caring for a dog can reduce PTSD sufferers’ need for anti-anxiety medications.
PADS also described several other examples of how therapy dogs can improve the lives of people struggling with a wide range of health and emotional conditions:6
- Children with epilepsy and other neurological conditions: Fraser is a therapy dog that works at BC Children’s Hospital Department of Psychology. According to PADS:7
“Many of the children and families who meet Fraser are under a great deal of stress. They are dealing with a chronic, debilitating illness or are trying to cope with a new (and often scary) diagnosis. The children have been poked and prodded and are often hesitant about meeting yet another doctor.
Fraser facilitates our ability to build trusting relationships with children and families in a short period of time. He makes it safe to talk about scary feelings or experiences.
He is a calm and gentle companion for the child or parent who is stressed. He provides unconditional affection for the child who is struggling to make connections or accept what is happening to them.”
- People with spinal injuries: Charlie was matched up with Verne Trevoy, a man who was recovering from a spinal injury. He could not walk safely, could not get up after falling and struggled to pick up items dropped on the floor. Verne explained that Charlie turned him into a “Renaissance Man” overnight, giving him his life back:8
“He became a constant helpmate, companion, and a tough, loyal, ever-faithful Bracing Dog. His life with me has not been easy. In Calgary winters, he has stood on C-train platforms ten times a week, waded through snow, slush, muck and vehicle spray, and has never flinched.
He has worn out three pairs of Muttluks, and one PADS cape. We were proud when, in 2006, he was named Volunteer Calgary’s Volunteer Animal of the Year!”
- Students with test anxiety: Therapy dogs are often brought into schools facing crises, trauma, and grief, however they can even be useful for teens facing test anxiety. The Downers Grove Public Library in Illinois brought in pet therapy dogs to assist high school students preparing for final exams.
Universities including Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Connecticut have also used therapy dogs for students cramming for tests.9
Are You Interested in Finding a Service Dog?
If you have a physical or mental disability and you believe your life could be improved by the services of a therapy dog, your first step should be to get a letter from your physician stating what your disability is and supporting the need for a service animal.
From there, you’ll need to contact a local organization that trains the type of service dog you need. Wolf Packs has a list of service dog trainers by state, which is a good place to start.10 You can also contact the individual groups below for further information about their programs:11