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Therapy and Service Animals

For centuries, humans have used pets to help them with many different tasks, including taming other animals for meat, milk, and clothing. Animals have also helped humans take care of their physical and mental health. This help comes most commonly in the form of service and therapy dogs.


     Therapy dogs provide emotional support and comfort to their owners, while service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks for those who, be it for physical or mental reasons, are unable to do so themselves. 


     I don’t have a dog specifically for service or therapy, but I do have one as a regular pet. She’s a two-year-old golden retriever named Bella who makes me smile and feel relaxed whenever I see her. 


    As someone who has struggled with social anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for most of my life (and, as of a couple years ago, depression), finding a way to feel relaxed and calm is a must. Just petting Bella has helped me calm down when life gets too tough. She loves people and will come up to me when I’m happy, sad, or just any time she sees me. I’m sure all of this would make Bella a good therapy dog if she were one.


     Petting an animal has actual scientific effects. It releases certain chemicals in the brain and is known to relieve stress. According to the article, Petting A Dog Is Good For Your Brain, According To Study, petting a dog releases oxytocin, which is also known as the “feel good” hormone. This hormone boosts brain activity in the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is, as the article states, “[…] a crucial part of the brain that controls attention, working memory, problem-solving, thinking and emotional reactions.” 


     According to the article, What Makes a Good Therapy Dog? | Psychology Today, desirable qualities in therapy dogs include, “[…] temperament, affiliative[-]ness, biddability [ie obedience], and gentleness […]”. This means that they need to be able to follow their owner’s commands and ignore any environmental stimuli that could distract them, like crowds or loud noises. 


     “Outside stimuli” also includes other dogs. If a therapy dog is exposed to another dog while walking with their owner, they have to be able to sit still and behave correctly; they cannot jump on the other owner or interact with the other dog. 


     According to the article, What is the Difference Between a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog? - Service Dogs for Veterans, “Therapy dogs [...] provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, and disaster areas.” 


     Therapy dogs in disaster areas, also known as crisis response or comfort dogs, are used to comfort victims of trauma or disasters. As the article, A Day in the Life of a Disaster Relief Dog, states, “[...] during the transitional phase between the fight-flight-freeze response and moving forward to deal long-term with the effects of their experience.” 


     Service dogs are trained in a similar way as therapy dogs. The only real difference is that, according to the article, What is the Difference Between a Service Dog and a Therapy Dog? - Service Dogs for Veterans, service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) while therapy dogs are not. The article states that the ADA, “[...] protects the rights of people with disabilities to access public places, including stores, restaurants, hotels and hospitals, with their service dogs.” 


     Other examples of service dogs are blind guide-dogs that help their owners walk around the environment; military or Multi-Purpose Canines that, among other things, track and attack certain criminals; and police dogs that assist law enforcement and help investigate crime scenes by sniffing out clues. I once knew someone whose dog was trained to help them grab items. 


     Although dogs are the most common type of service and therapy pet, they aren’t the only ones. According to the article,Therapy Animals - Offers Comfort and Cheer to People in Need, horses, cats, and birds are other common pets “[…] that nurture a sense of well-being to reduce anxiety and depression.” 


     These other animals are used mostly the same way as dogs, albeit with some differences. Birds, for example, are used to help war veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the article, Can A Bird Be An Emotional Support Animal? What To Know, “Birds can sense and respond to emotions.” 


     They do this by observing humans’ behavior, which will make the bird change its behavior as well. For example, the article, Birds Can 'Read' Human Gaze -- ScienceDaily, “When presented with a preferred food, hand-raised jackdaws [also known as crows] took significantly longer to retrieve the reward when a person was directing his eyes towards the food than when he was looking away [...] The birds hesitated only when the person in question was unfamiliar and thus potentially threatening.” 


     Horses are another increasingly common therapy animal. Horse therapy–also known as “equine therapy”-- can be used with people of all ages to treat PTSD, anxiety, and other disorders like autism. 


     While equine therapy is not a cure for those disorders, it can give patients coping skills to live with them. Working with horses in tandem with traditional therapy can teach patients the values of independence and help with their self-esteem. According to the article, Why horses are so in tune with human emotion, horses have a “wealth of mirror neurons” inside of them. 


     Mirror neurons are, as the article, Mirror neuron | anatomy, states, are “[a] type of sensory-motor cell located in the brain that is activated when an individual performs an action or observes another individual performing the same action.” 


     Horses will mirror both each others’ and other humans’ actions, which helps them build empathic and trusting relationships. 


     Animals, especially ones that can be used for therapy or other services, certainly are  fascinating. Building trust with them may help humans learn more about themselves and each other, showing that, with enough time and effort, anyone can build a connection with them and learn from them. Animals enrich our lives and help us become better people, and the existence of mirror neurons shows that humans and animals might not be so different after all. 


    Edited by: Mary May




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