Our guest blog comes from Carly McCarthy, exploring the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy.
“Dogs. With their cold noses and warm hearts they seem to somehow possess the ability to make us feel better about life. Whether that’s by getting us out and about in the fresh air for a walk, their devoted affection and disregard for our imperfections, or the way we somehow feel calmer after just a few moments of stroking them. Having a pet ensures you are never lonely and always have someone with a non-judgemental listening ear at the ready. Anyone who has had a pet will be able to list the many ways in which their pet makes them happy and improves their life. For children, having pets in the home can have a whole range of positive effects – from teaching important skills such as routines and care of someone other than yourself, to friendship and the joy of teaching tricks. The benefits of human animal interactions are becoming increasingly clear, and it is not just as pets that people are benefitting from animals, but also as part of a whole range of what is known as ‘Animal Assisted Interactions (AAI)’. One form of this is animal assisted therapy and dogs are the first animal that come to most people’s minds when we talk about animal therapy, but we should also mention there are lots of other fantastic animals who can work with people too, cats and horses being just two of the other animals commonly involved. There are many types of Animal Assisted Interactions (AAI), with Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) being just one of them.
It is scientifically proven that stroking an animal has beneficial effects to people’s bodies and mind; these include reduction of stress, lowering of blood pressure and a boost in the feel good ‘love’ chemical, oxytocin. Within Animal Assisted Therapy, benefits may include improved mood and self-confidence, ability to trust, increased empathy and reduced anxiety or aggression. Many children and young people with ASD and ADHD can benefit from the calming effect of being around an animal, which also helps to facilitate improved social interactions. Having an animal involved in a therapy session helps the trusting relationship develop between the therapists and clients. Our sessions are not just about stroking an animal, they may involve a wide range of fun activities to meet the clients’ needs and goals; just one example is an active agility session activity, which improves confidence, self-regulation and teamwork -all while having a lot of fun for all involved! Another example may be a caring session, where children work together to meet an animal’s needs, thinking about what is needed and wanted to help keep animals safe and happy, developing empathy, which also leads on to considering our own needs and wants. We teach clients safe ways of approaching a dog, and show them how to understand dog body language so they can interpret how dogs are feeling, and understand what enjoyable things for the dog are, too. These skills help to keep children safe around dogs, and help foster a deep respect towards animals and how to care for and respect them.
Despite the many potential benefits of being around animals and having pets, it is of course important that these responsibilities aren’t entered into lightly, and when considering pets for children to remember it is you, the adult, who will be ultimately responsible for most of the pets care! Within Animal Assisted Therapy it is important that all human animal interactions are done in a safe manner with therapists who have good understanding of animal well-being and can manage the potential risks involved when working with children and animals. We work as part of a team, where skilled therapists, animal professionals and trained animals work together to provide a safe and beneficial programme for all clients and animals involved. Everything is always done on a mutually beneficial basis so everyone’s needs are met, and this always includes the animals. None of our animals are ever forced to do anything and they are trained using entirely positive, force free methods – which is essential when building relationships and also for modelling effective relationships built on trust and respect.”