“Animals are such agreeable friends—they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.”
There is nothing like talking about your problems to get them off of your mind. Sometimes, however, it is nice to talk to someone you know won’t say too much back. Other times the weight of your mind can be too much to verbalize and you can’t quite form words. In those times, it is nice to have a friend to just be with. It’s even better if that friend is cute and likes ear scratches. Individuals in any state of mind can benefit greatly from their four-legged friends. Therapy animals can be a source of comfort and support for many as they navigate stressful situations and various health conditions.
Therapy animals often go into hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other places in the community to educate individuals and change lives. These animals can help alleviate the strain of depression, anxiety, PTSD and a number of other mental health conditions. Children’s hospitals often have dogs to comfort the children during treatments and relieve stress during difficult times. Nursing homes receive visits from various therapy animals to brighten the residents’ days and make a new friend.
While all pets bring love and warmth into a home, not all pets are natural therapy animals. Therapy animals may be certified and registered by organizations such as partnerpets.org that provide education and volunteer opportunities. An animal certainly does not need certifications to bring comfort, but it provides additional resources and better prepares them for serving the needs of larger groups.
There are plenty of creatures big and small that provide these benefits that can be therapy animals. The seniors at Council on Aging’s adult day care center, the Retreat, have had the pleasure of meeting a whole zoo of therapy animals. Tyler the goldendoodle visits monthly to show off his tricks followed by greeting everyone in the room to receive pets from his friends. Dogs are certainly the most traditional type of therapy animal, and for good reason. Therapy dogs can often smell distress in individuals andwill go over to comfort whomever in the room needs it most. The American Kennel Club’s Therapy Dog Program features a list of well-vetted organizations in your area if you wish to register your dog.
Another visitor to the Retreat is Charlotte, the minipig. According to local pig rescue, In Loving Swineness, pigs are incredibly intelligent creatures that are often misunderstood and mistreated. Pigs are empathetic and sensitive. Pigs that are handled from an early age or have been rehabilitated by organizations like In Loving Swineness make exceptional therapy pets. The American Mini Pig Association provides therapy pig resources and encourages mini pig handlers to enroll to both serve the community and to become advocates for mini pigs by showing how wonderful and gentle they truly are. Therapy animals can also include cats, birds, and even snakes!
All of these animals can be trained to participate in pet therapy. However, it is typically dogs and horses that are used in animal-assisted therapy. Animal-assisted therapy involves the animal and its handler working closely with social workers and counsellors with individual cases. The counsellor will design a plan for an individual to work closely with the animal to work on skills like trust and problem-solving.
Kindred Spirits Therapy Minis provides both forms of animal therapy to the community. Located in Baker, Nancy Lambert and her husband travel the Gulf Coast with their four mini horses to bring happiness. They recently brought one of their horses Elmer to the Retreat, where participants lit up when they saw him, many reminiscing of growing up on a farm with horses like him. As they pet Elmer, they told stories of their childhood horses and beamed. Even those who were standoffish and unsure of him at first came around, but his handler said that this is a common experience.
“When someone says that they don’t want to pet him, but are truly needing him emotionally, he can often tell and asserts himself,” Lambert said.
It is often said that horses understand people better than people do, and this may just be the case with Elmer.
According to Lambert, horses make great therapy animals because they are herd animals and belong to a community in their natural state. Domesticated horses seek community as well in both other horses and humans. They are naturally kind and intelligent which helps them with reading body language to understand and bond with humans.
“If you move aggressively, they can tell that you aren’t happy,” Lambert said. “They can even read someone’s tone of voice or touch and know if they are sad.”
This bond transforms those that the therapy horse works with, pausing them in a safe moment in time without any outside worries.
While not all types of animals can be registered as therapy animals, all critters bring a unique type of love to those who care for them. Pets bring companionship into the lives that they touch, especially in older individuals. When seeking mental and emotional health benefits from animals it is important that you seek professional mental help should you feel unsafe rather than exclusively hanging out with miniature-horses.
Council on Aging of West Florida is compliant with the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance Standards for Charity Accountability. Learn more at www.bbb.org.