For years, specially trained dogs have helped the blind and other people with disabilities. Now, some very special dogs, horses, and smaller animals are trained to help people with mental health challenges.
You may have heard about therapy dogs that help combat veterans with problems handling their return to civilian life. These animals are more than just pets. But even a pet can help an adult learn to love and laugh again after a tough time.
Therapy dogs know how to open doors, make phone calls, and handle other emergencies if their master cannot. Some even learn to sense their master’s stress level.
More men and women are coming back from war with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Some people who serve get it, others don’t. Psychologist LeslieBeth Wish says it depends on a person’s life before war. If it was mostly trouble free, that person might get through it without too many problems. But, if they were harmed as children or endured great losses, it may add to it.
We all carry our troubles like a string of pearls, she says, where each bead is the relic of a battle we’ve fought. If we have only one bead, our necklace is light and we can most likely carry it. If we have many battles behind us, it’s heavy. If one bead breaks and falls off the string, all or most of the other beads follow.
You don’t have to be in war to get PTSD. Some people have it after they have been hurt or raped. Or they have been in a crash or observed a violent crime. People with PTSD often get depressed. Some are not be able to make friends or hold down jobs. And, high amounts of stress can lead a person to substance use disorder.
The good news is there is hope for people with PTSD. New treatments include pets.
What can pets do?
There’s nothing like getting a big, sloppy kiss from a dog when you’re having a bad day. And, it helps to have someone to talk to even if your listener just wags his tail, barks, or meows. We like to think we take care of pets. But many times they take care of us even more.
A pet can:
- Comfort a nervous person
- Help someone start the day on a good note
- Be a reason to come home at night
- Build duty and trust
- Amuse, when nothing else does the job
What can service and therapy dogs do?
Therapy dogs are more than pets. They have to pass certain tests before they can work with the people who need them.
Certified service dogs are trained to help blind, deaf, or other people with physical issues. Therapy dogs get some of the same training. They also learn how to help people with mental health challenges.
Dog school does not work for every dog. It works for those that are house trained, good with people, and mild mannered. Sometimes dogs have to work more than a year to learn the hard tasks they’ll need to do as helpers. Other times, they pick up the basics quickly.
In August 2011, a golden retriever therapy dog went to court with a young girl in New York who had to testify about a rape. She was very frightened. The dog sensed the girl’s mood and knew when to cuddle, when to sit at her feet and when to lean in for comfort.
These types of dogs can help by:
- Waking up someone in an emergency or at a certain time
- Keeping crowds at a safe distance from their master
- Checking out a room or house before the master enters it
- Finding a way out if the master is caught in a high-stress situation
- Sensing the master’s stress level and start a game of fetch or tug when it gets high
- Fetching medication and a water bottle
- Giving stability on stairs or in tight spots
- Calling 911 by hitting a button on a special emergency phone
- Answering a doorbell
Can other animals help?
Horses can also be used for treatment. As big as they are, horses are very sensitive animals. If you are nervous with them, they get nervous, too. If you are sure, so are they. Since horses give a rider instant feedback, the rider learns to handle his emotions and actions carefully.
Big animals can be scary. If you can get over your fear of getting on and riding a horse, think of how good you will feel about yourself when you face other tough situations.
Just by being part of someone’s life, a horse can teach that person how to solve problems, build good relationships, and keep going, even when life is hard.
Animals can teach us about ourselves and about life. Cats, birds, ferrets, fish, and dolphins have been used to help people deal with autism to anxiety and many disorders in between. These can be found through programs across the country.
How do I get a helper dog?
There is no one place or one way to get a helper dog.
If you want the comfort and company of a pet, a dog from an animal shelter may be all you need. Check your local animal rescue center for obedience training programs.
If you want a therapy dog, call Canine Assistants for an application to get a trained animal. Dogs are free, but you will need to go to a two-week training program before you can take the dog home.
If you have a dog and want that dog trained to help you, call the Delta Society or the Dog Assistance United Campaign for information on training.
If you are a veteran, ask your area VA about animal therapy programs. You will need a referral to get a dog or other animal as a helper. You will also need training so you can learn to handle your dog.
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National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
American Humane Association
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy