Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a relatively new name for something that’s been in use for years—centuries, actually. In fact, the first documented case of a pet assisting therapeutically was in 1792. And, of course, the history of people keeping pets goes back millennia. I’m of a mind that if people have done something for that long, there’s probably a reason involving adaptation and benefit. But this isn’t enough for insurance companies, and frankly, it’s helpful to understand what, exactly, it is about pets and our relationships with animals that is beneficial so that therapists and other support professionals can use them effectively.
Despite the relatively long history of using animals to heal people, it’s fairly short on research but very long on anecdotes. I’m sure you know several people or you yourself have found therapeutic benefits in having a pet, and yet only recently have there been a handful of scientifically sound studies looking at the impact of AAT.
The Veterans Affairs PTSD website warns “Becoming dependent on a dog can get in the way of the recovery process for PTSD.” And while it’s arguable that relying on a dog to avoid certain situations or activities could facilitate that avoidance, that’s actually true of any relationship that is supportive. If I have a partner or parent or older/adult child that is doing things for me so that I don’t have to, that could also be a crutch. So can a lot of other things—that’s how addictions can be formed. So I’m not sure that that warning should really be a deterrent to getting a companion animal, but there absolutely does need to be more research in this area.
A fascinating program called Puppies Behind Bars pairs selected inmates with puppies to train as seeing eye dogs. What especially intrigued me was the huge impact it has apparently had on the inmates, many of whom have never been trusted with anything important, or felt like they succeeded. Deputy Superintendent [of Bedford Hills Correctional] Joseph Morales, said: ”The dogs have had a tremendous calming effect on the women and a tremendous humanizing effect on the prison community.”
Pets for Vets pairs animals specifically for veterans suffering from PTSD. Actually, so do a bunch of other organizations. And it’s heartwarming to see so many opportunities for vets to receive support. But with so many unregulated opportunities, it seems like a good idea to ask questions about the qualification of the organization, the training of the animals, etc.