From earliest times mankind has had an affinity with certain animals. The deep bonds that can be formed with our pets for example – horses, cats and dogs make good examples – are well known to us all. And we are all familiar with the work of police and blind dogs.
Animals are used across the world to ease the discomfort of people in difficulty, from prisoners, to the occupants of nursing homes and hospitals for the mentally ill. Many specially trained dogs – known as Assistance dogs effectively extend their owners range of abilities where these are severely curtailed.
One particular case of a retriever called JJ has recently been widely reported on the Internet. JJ comforts the dying at an Oregon hospice. An associated video (see link below) has gone viral, with, by August of 2015, over 200,000 hits recorded. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3210012/Heartbreaking-video-hospice-dog-comforting-dying-woman-gives-people-plenty-paws-thought.html
This field in general – where animals are used to improve the lives of humans – is called Animal-Assisted Therapy. It is a way to motivate patients to stay active. There are three broad stages.
The patient and therapist together assess needs. After that the animal is introduced to the patient and a rapport is built up between them.
Bonding through motor skills
Developing a bond between the animal and client by developing motor skills. This might be as simple as teaching the patient how to feed or groom the animal. If all goes well at this stage then spoken commands are introduced.
The value of such therapy comes from the increased levels of activity – simple activities like walking to the cupboard to get food for the animal or getting water from the tap for the animal to drink.
And at a deeper, psychological level, practitioners find that the greater the patient’s social interaction with the animals, the better the social interactions with adults and children in everyday life.
The ultimate goals of Animal Assisted Therapies differ from individual to individual. However, one major goal of all such therapies is to reach a level of interactivity between patient and animal which is mirrored in real life: When the patient has become comfortable with people in the same way that they have become comfortable with their animals a major behavioural milestone has been reached.