Understanding how therapy dogs can help | Bakersfield Life


The effects of the last two years on our mental health are undeniable.

Data from the American Psychological Association indicates that almost 8 in 10 Americans, or 78 percent, cited the pandemic as a major source of stress in their lives.

And almost 7 in 10, or about 67 percent, say they’ve experienced increased stress over the last two years.

With a much greater need in our society for ways to ease stress, it’s no surprise that over that time, there’s also been an increase in calls to use therapy dogs in clinical settings, classrooms and even offices.

“We’ve definitely seen a huge increase in demand for health care workers and facilities,” said Elisabeth Van Every, communications specialist for PetPartners, one of the senior and largest organizations that trains and licenses therapy dogs and handlers.

“We’ve also seen increased demand in schools, and now a lot of schools are beginning to introduce facility animals,” she added.

The therapeutic effects that animals can have on their owners are undeniable.

In addition to the psychological benefits, such as a reduction in stress, anxiety and loneliness we can feel when an animal’s around, there are physiological impacts, too.

An emotional support animal can help lower your blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health and, in some cases, even reduce the amount of medicine a person might need, according to UCLA Health’s People-Animal Connection program.

Different roles

When getting into the discussion on therapy dogs, it’s important to distinguish how they’re different from a service dog or an emotional support animal.

The main difference is that a service dog is one that is trained and certified by procedures spelled out in the Americans with Disabilities Act, which outlines the legal guidelines and policies for the service animal and its handler. A service dog is “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or other mental disability,” according to a website set up to share information about the act .

That’s the key difference between a service animal and all other types of working animals, including therapy, comfort and emotional support animals, according to the ADA.

The easiest way to explain it, according to Van Every, is to understand that a therapy dog ​​has a specific type of personality and is usually trained to interact with groups of people, whereas a service dog and an emotional support animal are generally working with people one on one.

And while there are special training and certifications for therapy dogs, as well as emotional support dogs, they don’t have the same ADA protections and rights as a service dog, according to the ADA. (The rights for these animals and their handlers are listed here: https://www.ada.gov/regs2010/service_animal_qa.html.)

Their personality

While there’s no certification process for comfort or support animals, there is for therapy dogs. However, there’s also no state-sanctioned agency that regulates or governs such guidelines, which means the four or five national industry leaders like PetPartners and larger organizations like them often set the guidelines.

As therapy dogs have been in use for decades, these industry-led standards are pretty well-established.

“A therapy animal team, meaning one animal and one handler working together, go through a screening process,” Van Every said.

“For our organization, that screening is designed as more or less a typical therapy animal visit,” she said. The visit looks at how the animal will respond to a new environment, noise stimuli, quick movements and other potential stressors.

“The other thing that is vital for a therapy animal is that they have the right temperament,” she added. A therapy animal isn’t just one that is able to provide comfort; the animal has to enjoy doing so.

“We want therapy animals to want to do the work and to enjoy doing it,” she said.

How they help

Torie Beck, coordinator for Marley’s Miracle Mutts, sees firsthand the difference that therapy dogs can make.

Her program, which is part of the local nonprofit Marley’s Mutts Dog Rescue, brings therapy dogs to places such as Beale Memorial Library for Barks and Books, which helps kids learning to read gain confidence by providing a supportive and attentive audience of four-legged friends .

“One of the ways they help, honestly, is just having them near you … it can massively help with anxiety,” Beck said.

“It brings a lot of joy to people,” she added. “Being able to cuddle with them without any expectation and any judgment, it just brings a lot of happiness to people.”

And the medical community seems to be on board with the help, too.

In fact, the program recently announced a partnership with “a new team of dog-tors” who will be making the rounds at Mercy and Memorial hospitals, thanks to a new partnership between Dignity Health and Marley’s Mutts.

“Working with Dignity Health allows us to be of service to many more folks than ever before,” said an email statement from Zach Skow, who founded Marley’s Mutts in 2009. “The human-animal bond can heal us and we are excited to bring our furry healers and their ‘pawsitive’ energy to Dignity Health.”

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