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More than Man’s Best Friend

Azriela Jaffe

Why patients are turning to dogs, horses, rabbits — even chickens — to heal both physical and emotional wounds.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

When most of us experience difficulties in life, we turn to Hashem, as well as professionals such as rebbeim, doctors, surgeons, therapists, and psychologists. But for some, a breakthrough in healing can sometimes come from regular visits with a dog, cat, rabbit, horse, bird, goat, hamster, or even a chicken.

A fairly new field of professional therapy, AAT often doesn’t stand alone, but rather works in tandem with other therapies — mental health, occupational therapy, physical therapy, nursing, speech and language, education, stress management, therapeutic recreation, and more. With the help of animals, patients — whether children, at-risk teens, adults, or the elderly — can address issues with psycho-social, emotional, physical and/or cognitive functioning.

Dr. Boris Levinson, a Jewish child psychologist from Queens, pioneered the use of companion animals in a therapeutic way with emotionally disturbed children in the 1970s. When he questioned over 400 psychotherapists in his research, more than half of them believed that depression, anxiety, phobia, and other mental illness could be treated with help from an animal.

In the late seventies, researcher Dr. Samuel Corson — often referred to as the “father of pet therapy” — took it a step further, showing that in psychiatric institutions, pairing patients with particular kinds of animals helped the individuals open up to their therapists. Those treated also reported greater overall levels of happiness.

By 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was using dogs in psychological treatment for anxious victims of natural disasters. Specially trained dogs were also used after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Oklahoma City bombing.

The healing power of animals is not limited to the emotional realm. The Delta Society, established in the 1970s by a team of veterinarians and psychiatrists, has funded scientific research that demonstrates a measurable reduction in blood pressure, stress, and anxiety from the animal-human interaction of therapy animals.

Penina Hoffman,* for one, has seen tremendous physical benefits from horse-assisted activities for her seven-year-old son, who suffers from Down syndrome and hyperactivity. David* needs regular physical exercise, but he doesn’t enjoy this type of activity, so there’s a lot of resistance. By riding a horse, David is receiving much-needed physical activity; yet because it’s so fun, he doesn’t realize that he’s getting a serious workout.

“My son visits Sweet Dreams Farm twice a week,” says Penina, who lives in Lakewood. “While riding the horse, David’s muscle tone is strengthened because the horse’s gait mimics that of a person’s. His balance and coordination are further strengthened when he lets go of the saddle and horse, and uses his hands to play with toys that the therapist has given him to occupy his mind.

“And just as important,” adds Penina, “is that while David is on that horse, he enjoys himself so much that he talks to Morah Miriam, sings with her, and opens up to her in ways that are unusual for him. We’ve even seen his speech improved from riding the horse. Going to the farm brings out the soft side of him. The whole week he talks about the farm. It’s the highlight of his week.”

What is it about interacting with animals that’s so therapeutic? It seems that the simple act of riding, brushing, petting, hugging, feeding, walking, or communicating with an animal can help clients open the door to healing.

The therapy often works precisely because it doesn’t feel like therapy. Animals aren’t judgmental: they don’t care how a person looks, if they stutter, if they’re depressed or bedridden. This unconditional type of love makes patients feel safe, happy, loved, and willing to open up, especially those who are vulnerable, scared, and hesitant to connect. The healing comes not just from how loving the dog is, but from how the individual learns to respond to and sometimes take care of the animal in return. With this type of therapy, the patient has a positive avenue to give of themselves, which in itself can be tremendously empowering.


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