We just released a DVD of the seminar I did in Naples, Florida on Animal Assisted Therapy and Activities, “Lending a Helping Paw.” I’m excited about it, because it gives me the opportunity to help individuals and organizations who want to help others. It is an example of an activity we can do with our dogs that is a triple win (for us, our dogs, and people who need some oxytocin and/or physical therapy). Because of that, old social worker that I am, it’s near and dear to my heart.
Speaking of hearts, and what fills ours with happiness, the question arises about how effective AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) and AAA (Animal Assisted Activities) really are. I remember a conference put on by the Delta Society many, many years ago that included a controversial study. It showed that, in this study anyway, the greatest benefit was to the owners of the dogs, not the patients in the facility. Whoops. While the audience greeted the news with a disapproving silence, I was cheering in the wings, because it’s good to examine the issue objectively, rather than just following our hearts in this case.
Indeed, the study was very useful and no doubt had an impact on “best practices” as currently defined. It found that the teams in this case had just walked into people’s rooms without asking permission. No surprise then that the residents weren’t all in favor of the project; they’d already lost so much control in their lives that the last thing they needed was to lose more. That’s why good programs like The Delta Society and TDI emphasize the importance of putting the patient first, and letting them drive the system.
But the question remains: Is AAT and AAA really effective? First, we need to distinguish between AAT and AAA. Much of what people call AAT isn’t truly therapy in the medical sense of the word. To be labeled as therapy the interactions need to be directed or delivered by health and human service professionals, with goals set, treatment plans written and progress carefully recorded. Animal Assisted Activities, on the other hand, include visits, petting, games and tricks.
Here’s the good news for those of us who want to believe that AAA and AAT are beneficial to the recipients: There is indeed research that shows it’s efficacy in several modalities: Two studies that I can think of off the top of my head found that visits from dogs decreased the perception of pain after surgery. One study asked children to rate their pain (Robbins et al, J of Holistic Nursing, Vol 24, No 1, 206) and another looked at the amount of pain medication used after joint surgery, which is a good, objective and quantifiable measure (Kaplan, AAT Conference Abstract 2004). A third study found that walking with a dog significantly increased compliance with physical therapy programs and increased ambulation exercise: 28% refused to walk without a dog, only 7.2% with a dog. In addition, steps walked more than doubled once patients did walk (Abate et al J. of Cardio. Nursing 2011).
This is not surprising to those of us who are aware of the impact of dogs on our oxytocin levels, and the impact of oxytocin on pain perception (it decreases), immune responses (it increases) and affect (it tends to make us feel safer and more secure). But we do have to be careful here: Not everyone benefits from visitations or therapy from a companion animals. You have to like dogs to get an oxytocin rush from them. (Most “therapy” animals are dogs, but some programs have cats or rabbits for selected patients. No reports of sheep yet….) Awhile ago I visited a senior center with a good friend and her dog. I’d guess about half the people we saw were interested in interacting. The rest appeared to be either neutral or clearly avoiding an interaction. My friend knows what she is doing, and was careful to not impose her dog onto anyone who wasn’t a dog lover.
This all gets back to one thing I emphasize in the DVD: The patient is the star of the program. Not your dog, not you. As much as we love our dogs, if we do this right we’re doing it for people who aren’t as fortunate as we are, and don’t have the opportunity to interact with dogs as we do. It’s all about them, and keeping that in mind is critical to a program’s success.
Other aspects of AAT and AAA are essential too: The Lending a Helping Paw DVD has an extensive section on what dogs are suited for therapy work, and how to ensure that your dog is really enjoying the process (these are the 2 most common problems that professionals in the field encounter). It discusses organizations that certify teams, what is required to obtain certification and how to work with facilities in a professional and pro-active way.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Instead of playing with the lambs or gardening, last night I went to a senior facility outside of Madison and delivered copies of the DVD to one of the stars of the show: Ruth Trameri. She’s the lovely lady on the right of the cover, with my good friend Beth Viney’s (on the left) and her certified therapy dog, Czar. (Czar was an early admirer of my Gr Pyr, Tulip… that’s actually how Beth and I met.) Here they are, gracing the cover of the new DVD:
And here’s a video from the DVD of Tootsie’s first visit to a facility. We used her (and Willie and 3 other dogs) to evaluations of potential therapy dogs. (Tootsie passed, Willie… no surprise here, does not: too enthusiastic). This video segment is testing for one of the most important qualities of a good therapy dog — sociability. Dogs need to be interested in everyone, true social butterflies, but calm and respectful at the same time. Watch how Tootsie tells us where she’d most like to be…. (and feel your oxytocin levels rise?). Thanks to Beth Viney, the Director of Pet Pals in Madison WI, Dr. Linda Sullivan, and Pet Pals volunteer Diane Peltin and Ruth Trameri for helping with the evaluation section of the video, we all had a great time and it resulted in some very instructive (and, I might add, amusing) videos.