Therapy dog as mental health aide

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  • Ahmedabad mirror
  • 10-10-2021 06:00 am

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By invitation: Mala Arora

It is often said that a dog is “man’s best friend”. But it doesn’t take a dog lover to understand the role dogs can potentially play in helping with mental illness. As we celebrate World Mental Health Day today, it may be worthwhile to emphasize the importance of animal-assisted therapies and interventions for mental health.
While therapy dogs are commonplace in the US and Europe, I was happily surprised to discover a café on the outskirts of Ahmedabad that offers therapy dogs for “interaction”. I was happy to learn that many families use such therapy dogs on a regular basis.
Therapy dogs are confused with “service dogs”, but they differ in that the latter dogs are trained for the specific needs of their masters such as the visually impaired.
Therapy dogs can be most useful for children and seniors. In the event of a meltdown of children with difficulties in social-emotional behavior, therapy dogs act as a calming instrument for de-escalation and prevention of emotional crises. Research suggests that therapy dogs provide emotional stability in stressful situations and can help reduce anxiety and depression.
Although statistical data are not available to support the extent of animal therapeutic intervention in mental illness, studies by renowned international and national organizations have highlighted their role and contribution as a complementary aid.
Therapy dogs are not restricted in personal and recreational settings. They also prove extremely useful in the classroom for regulating student behavior, encouraging reading, and creating a positive and empathic atmosphere. Therapy dog ​​services have also been used with children in various settings such as preschool to relieve separation anxiety by making children feel safe when their parents are not around.
With the teacher’s consent and observation, students are allowed to hold the dog, play with it, talk to it, go for a walk, or just observe in order to regain emotional and behavioral control. People with the autistic spectrum find access to therapy dogs comforting and calming. This also increases the language of expression used by people with special needs and disabilities.
Interacting with dogs can help promote children’s social interaction with their peers and adults. The calming effect of dogs comes from the love we feel for them, which releases the “love hormone” oxytocin. This chemical helps calm us down and can also increase our pain threshold. Therapy dogs are used in schools, retirement homes and for diseases such as PTSD. The presence of a therapy dog ​​serves as an effective motivator and has a huge impact on military veterans.
Older people who live alone because friends and family members cannot visit regularly or are no longer as active as they used to spend most of their time in isolation and suffer from depression. They often suffer from diseases such as dementia, chronic illnesses or restricted mobility. Animal therapy can become an effective strategy because the interaction is more direct and relies more on body language than verbal communication.
It is important to speak during a therapy or counseling session and that communication is key in such a treatment plan. However, researchers have indicated that the very presence of a therapy dog ​​can provide psychological, emotional, social, and physical support for those in need of support.
Pet therapy has had a transformative effect in Western societies. Animal therapy is only just beginning to gain ground in India. Some companies are also planning to include animal therapy in their corporate social responsibility initiatives – an endorsement of both – commitment to mental health issues and, of course, cynophilia.
Mala Arora, Educator (Inclusion, Diversity and Mental Health)