Bella, an 18-month-old mixed breed therapy dog in Bengaluru, boasts of a busier calendar than many of ours. Apart from working as a therapist at the Paws and Hooves Project at Wag-ville, her one-acre sprawling therapy center, Bella also visits schools and homes for one-to-one therapy sessions. Her patients are kids or adults with behavioural issues, ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), severe disability and autism. In her one-year career as a therapist, Bella has added many feathers to her cap.
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“Bella was my father’s therapy dog for a little over two months. She was helping him deal with speech and mobility issues that had cropped up after he suffered a stroke couple of years ago,” shares Akash Raman, a resident of Bengaluru. After the stroke, Akash’s father was not mobile and suffered speech impairment. But soon after the therapy sessions began, the family began to notice a change in him. Few days into therapy and he would wait for Bella and ask about her. “We recognized Bella’s potential as a therapist when we received a video from the center, wherein we could see my father whistling for the very first time in many years,” recalls Akash.
What Akash experienced with his father cannot be termed as a coincidence. Multiple research studies have shown that interacting with animals, stroking them or just looking at them can help reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and increase the levels of oxytocin, the cuddle hormone. Simply put, science believes that animals bring about positive neurobiological changes in our brain.
Did you know that the sound of a purring cat accelerates the process of bone healing? The frequency of vibrations that are released from the purring, which ranges between 25 and 150 Hertz, reduces the time taken to heal broken bones.
If you are feeling anxious or hyper, an aquarium with veil tail gold fish is something to look out for. According to scientists, just observing the fish with its swaying double tail for ten minutes will bring down your blood pressure and reduce hyper activity.
Next time you experience any mild pain or discomfort, try stroking your furry friend or just look at its face. Your brain will start releasing endorphins, a chemical that dampens the pain signal received by the brain. In addition to decreasing the feeling of pain, endorphins will also enhance a feeling of euphoria, release sex hormones and will strengthen your immune system.
Thanks to all these scientifically proven trivia and much more, an increasingly large number of certified mental health practitioners are using the services of therapy animals to achieve their goals.
“It has been proven through scientific research that even if therapy animals do not engage in any metaphorical or physical activity, just their presence in a session generates more positive outcomes when compared to sessions without animals. When in contact with animals, our body starts to release hormones like oxytocin (bonding hormone), dopamine, reduces cortisol and increases endorphins that help us deal with pain,” says Unnati Hunjan, an assistant professor of psychology at Christ University Bangalore. Unnati is also pursuing her PhD in Neuropsychological changes brought out by animal-assisted interventions.
Qualifying to be a therapist
The list of animals used in Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) sessions is endless. It can be dogs, cats, farm animals, rabbits, horses, turtles and the rest. Experts say that it is an animal’s temperament that lands it with the title of a therapist.
“It is not the type or breed, but behaviour and training of an animal that we consider, before choosing it for therapy,” says Zahra Poonawala, an animal-assisted therapist in Pune, who also holds a masters degree in Clinical Psychology.
For example in case of therapy dogs, it can be a rescued dog, an adopted dog, a street dog or a breed dog. Not only does the dog need to be affectionate, sociable, friendly and with persons of all ages and genders, but must be well-behaved with other dogs and animals too.
“Therapy dogs must be calm and be able to tolerate high levels of noise and activity. They need to be comfortable in cars as well as with staying away from home. Overall, the dog must be able to cope with high levels of stress. An animal behavior expert would be an ideal person to carry out the temperament test,” Zahra explains.
Training to be a therapist
Once they have been tested for temperament, the animals needs to go through vigorous training before they qualify as therapists.
Animals are trained and introduced in sessions slowly, depending on the patient’s need. “Some of our patients require physical contact, while some might not. Sessions are designed keeping in mind the need of the person coming to us for the therapy. For example, in case of fish as therapists, to induce calming effect, we use slow moving fish like a gold fish, an Angelfish or an Oranda, whereas, for sessions that need interaction, we use Kois or Guppys. Similarly, for patients who are scared of dogs and cats or are visually impaired, a rabbit is a good choice. Gender and breed of the animal is never a constraint,” says Minal Kavishwar, a clinical psychologist and founder of Animal Angel Foundation in Pune.
The animals used as therapists are well taken care of too. “It is essential that the animal goes back to his/her family after a day’s work. Therapy animals are given a break after every one hour and we make sure they are happy and not overworked. To ensure this, we develop cordial relationship with the animals’ families too. It is very similar to a good and healthy workplace for humans,” says Malvika Lobo, an animal-assisted therapist in Mumbai.
What makes AAT click?
Experts feel that presence of animals enhances the feeling of safety and promotes a non-judgmental environment. “One of the fundamental principles of therapy is to create a safe and non judgmental space for any client. The presence of animals further enhances this feeling. Once while working with a child with cerebral palsy, at Bal Kalyan Sansta,Pune, the child narrated that the therapy dog was licking her and did not care about her broken body and gave her kisses despite that. She obviously felt accepted and it is moments like this that are powerful vehicles of change,” says Zahra.
The baby schema concept comes into play too. The term baby schema refers to a set of facial features – large head and a round face, a high and protruding forehead, large eyes, and a small nose and mouth – commonly found both in human and animal infants.
“The therapy works on the concept of Baby schemas. Human beings automatically get drawn towards large eyes and cute faces as this description fits a baby schema. There are theories that suggest positive role of baby schema in AAT being a success,” says Unnati.
Therapy sessions with animals also bring in an element of touch that isn’t possible with traditional therapy. “When children/ clients are talking about difficult emotions it may help to hold on to the therapy animal. During an interview with a parent at KEM, the parent appeared overwhelmed. The therapy dog sensed that and put his head on the lap of the parent. The parent who was until that moment pushing back her emotions, felt safe to let it all out,” recalls Zahra.
Need for a regulatory body in AAT
While the positives of such therapy are many, certified mental health practitioners feel the need for a regulatory body in India when it comes to AAT.
“AAT is relatively a new and upcoming field of psychology in India. Gradually, across the world, places like the USA and UK have slowly realized the need for having a board to license and monitor the kind of work that happens. In India, we don’t recognize and acknowledge this school of thought fully. I have heard of multiple programmes in India, where untrained individuals who are not even mental healthcare professionals are practicing therapy. It’s like going to a lawyer to help fix your diabetes,” says Zahra.
Trained psychologists who are progressively recognizing the benefits of AAT feel that it is not only important to educate people about the field but also to set and control ethical and welfare standards at a governmental level, since it involves a vulnerable population.
“There is no university in India certifying AAT. There is a fine line between animal-assisted therapy and human-animal interaction. Sessions sconducted by trained psychologists or psychiatrists are more goal-oriented,” says Manali Randive, a psychologist in Nagpur, training to be an animal-assisted therapist.