Dogs, Rats And Lizards Are Just Some Of The Animals That Provide Therapy

<p> Karakal / <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Therapeutic_horseback_riding_2.JPG" target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a> (<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en" target="_blank">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>) </p>

By Sophia Nicolov and Andy Flack, University of Bristol, for the Animal History Museum While therapy animals have been around for a long time, people are forever discovering new ways in which animal companions can help us come to terms with things that happen to us, and to develop ways of overcoming barriers laid down before us. A development recently reported in The Huffington Post is a program run by Therapy Dogs International in North Carolina which helps schoolchildren who, for a variety of reasons, have difficulty reading aloud in front of other people. For children with this kind of social anxiety, which might have been caused by significant periods of absence from school, or mental health problems, reading aloud to their dogs allows them to get used to reading to others in an environment which does not make them feel self-conscious. It is a time devoid of the types of judgement that many young people feel in their interactions with other people. These animals unknowingly inspire confidence in the children, motivating them to continue pursuing their education.

This, however, is just one of the many ways in which companion species take part in therapy programs. Another way in which dogs have played a role in helping people in the US has been as therapy dogs for disaster victims. For instance, they played important roles in the rehabilitation of people following the Oklahoma city bombings in 1995, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina (2005). More recently, they have helped children coming to terms with school shootings such as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012) as well as victims of the Boston Marathon (2013). They have also assisted veterans following their return from war zones all over the world. Their abilities in these sorts of scenarios is rooted in the "unconditional" love these animals can give. Indeed, Therapy Dogs International says that while these companions "cannot heal someone's wounds ... they can make a difference in the emotional life and reclamation of a strong self."

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While dogs are the most widespread species involved in animal therapy, they aren't the only species that has positive impacts on people's lives. Other animals involved in therapy include some kinds of birds, cats, ferrets, hamsters, lizards, rats, fish, guinea pigs and horses.

Human relationships with horses, like human-canine relationships, have long been considered to be ones of mutuality, where people sense both species are in tune with one another. Horses have been shown to be effective 'therapists' for children with Aspergers or autism and this practice is becoming increasingly popular in the US Equine Therapy reports that "the rhythmic motion of riding a horse causes the kids to focus on the movement - which is slow, deliberate, and relaxing." Building a bond with a horse also helps some of these children strengthen social skills which they may have had difficulties developing

Therapeutic horseback riding horse show, Císařský ostrov, Prague, Czech Republic. Karakal / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

A particularly inspiring pet-assisted therapy program currently underway called "On a Wing and a Prayer" connects birds such as parrots, parakeets and cockatiels with people ranging from those with physical disabilities to criminals in the process of rehabilitation. Some people might think that birds aren't able to relate to humans in the traditional way that animals like dogs might, but this program shows they are able to develop significant emotional bonds. The beauty of these kinds of birds, and the freedom they represent, make them appealing as a point of focus for many people.

Less traditional four-legged animals such as ferrets, mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, and guinea pigs have also found callings as therapy animals in recent years. Rats have proven to be especially suitable because their extremely high intelligence makes them particularly intuitive to human emotions, as well as being much more affectionate creatures than other rodent species like mice. While rats are often given a bad name (indeed, they are frequently considered to be vermin), they actually form close relationships with us. At the Children's Therapy Center of Washington Hospital in Peters Township, Washington, Pennsylvania, rats provide therapy for children with autism. The center's facilitator, Ms. Pollock, admits to having had a number of reservations about the use of rats in this context. However, upon seeing the interactions between these animals and the children, her eyes were opened to the difference rat-assisted therapy could make to these children's lives. It's not just children that can be affected by these animals, though. Some university students have recently benefited from interactions with these creatures. At Park University in Parkville, Missouri, pet therapy sessions were organized with MO KAN Pet Partners in the campus library for students undertaking their finals in order to reduce stress levels. While dogs, cats and horses were all involved there was also, due to their highly sociable nature, a rat. One of the instructors, Julie Goodman, commented that "Park University, like other universities, has realized the power of the healing touch of animals."

Although it might seem strange to most people, lizards also make good therapy animals, perhaps because they can be so docile in nature. Our bonds with animals are not confined to those cute and cuddly creatures who most often live as our companions. Indeed, some people form strong bonds with these creatures which some of us find less attractive or who we perceive as lacking emotion. Whether furry or scaly, it's the nature of the relationship between human and non-human animal that counts, not its appearance. "I'd have to say my Leopard Gecko Mindy is very much therapy for me," wrote "Midori," leaving a message with the Herp Center Network, "she really is my therapy lizard, she wants to sit with me when I'm upset and tolerates me, which even my two dogs and cat won't. She'll just find a place on me and curl up and be like 'I'm here, I won't leave you.'"

Whether horse, dog, rat, or lizard, all sorts of animals affect our emotional lives. They live alongside us and with their distinct personalities and the sense of mutual engagement they affect us just as much as we affect them. It has long been known that when we interact with animals our levels of oxytocin (the so-called "happy hormone") rise significantly, helping to reduce stress and enhance emotional well-being. Just as we are capable of helping rescue animals to start second lives, the development and intensification of the human-animal bond enriches all kinds of human lives and, in some cases, allow us to move through - and come to terms with - trauma.