It is not unusual to use physical therapy and rehabilitation to help people recover from accidents or injuries. It’s a tried and tested recovery technique. But in recent years a much newer and much more surprising recovery technique has been gaining popularity in Australia; the use of therapy dogs.
Many hospitals around Australia use therapy dogs as emotional support for patients, such as Sydney’s Mount Druitt Hospital and the Royal Darwin Hospital, but these therapy dogs are only used to provide comfort to patients in waiting rooms. Brisbane’s Mater Hospital has taken the process a step further at their South Brisbane campus, using dogs to help patients with various physical therapy tasks.
The Mater Pet Program is run by volunteers and is used to assist with the recovery of both adults and children with a variety of injuries or disease-related muscular problems.
Mater Pet Program volunteer coordinator Russell Williams said there had not been a lot of scientific studies published relating to the use of dogs as therapy, but said when therapy dogs were used in practice, the results spoke for themselves.
“We get patients to throw balls for the dogs, or even just brush and pat them, and it all helps to improve their motion, balance and coordination,” Mr Williams said.
“The dogs are useful in speech therapy as well,” he said.
“Patients can give commands to the dogs, or simply call out their names.”
It is not just the physical elements of therapy that animals can assist in.
Dr Nicole Grant is an occupational therapist at Gateway Therapies, a South East Queensland based service that offers occupational, speech and psychological therapies, as well as services for those with autism. After getting her own dog, Darcy, and training him for therapy, she soon learnt of the psychological benefits these animals have to offer.
Darcy is a two-and-a-half-year-old Golden Retriever who now works as a therapy dog alongside Dr Grant. She said the pair had worked together for nearly two years and had helped each other grow as professionals and as a family.
“He trains me just as much as I train him, it’s a two way street,” Dr Grant said, giving Darcy a pat on the head.
Darcy and Dr Grant are especially focused on helping children who have learning difficulties and who have trouble engaging with their peers and with tasks that are given to them.
“There’s one particular child I remember working with who would struggle to concentrate so much that she’d write one sentence and leave the room to do a lap of the office, but getting her back to the chair was a nightmare,” Dr Grant said.
“Then as soon as we’d have Darcy sitting in, she’d still get up but it’d just be to give Darcy a quick pat, then she’d sit straight back down and continue with her work.
“It saved both of us so much time and stress just from having this little guy in the room, and he never says no to a pat!” Dr Grant said, laughing.
One comprehensive study by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information found evidence that the use of therapy dogs in classrooms resulted in a huge jump in the level of participation and positive attitudes among the students.
“Recently we’ve started going to a high school especially for disadvantaged children who haven’t fared well in mainstream school,” Dr Grant said.
“Some of them are trying so hard to be disinterested.
“They’ll sit there and pretend not to care, but when I walk past with Darcy you can see them slip their hands out to sneak a pat and it gets them talking and brings them out of their shell.”
Dr Grant said children on the Autism spectrum also demonstrated huge improvements in social skills when Darcy was involved in their therapy.
She said she was constantly amazed by how remarkable the difference in the children’s engagement was.
“I’ve had therapy sessions with young kids who don’t want to come into the room or they’re fearful of leaving their parents, but as soon as I introduce them to Darcy they are like: ‘Yep, I’m coming with you, see you Mum and Dad’,” Dr Grant said, smiling.
“They’re less threatening, so for, say, kids on the spectrum, they want human interaction but it’s overwhelming for them, whereas for some reason, dogs are easier to deal with.”
Therapy dogs have been used to provide emotional support in a number of more adult environments. Universities have taken part in RSPCA puppy play date events to help students reduce their stress levels, aged care facilities have animals visit to interact with the residents and make them feel happier, more active and even more alert and, most recently, ambulance call centres in New South Wales have used therapy dogs to calm those dealing with either abusive callers or emotionally draining cases.
Therapy dogs have also been used to assist Indigenous Australians.
Dr Louise Pennant has been a practicing psychologist for 25 years. She has experienced first hand the positive impact therapy dogs have had on Indigenous Australians.
Dr Pennant works with the Indigenous Kalwun Health Service on the Gold Coast. A few years ago she read about a program in Armidale, New South Wales, where young Aboriginal boys were paired with working dogs, training them and taking them to events like dog trials.
“It was the most amazing program, and it inspired me to adapt it to an urban setting, as I’m based at the Gold Coast,” Dr Pennant said.
“That’s when I got Jymbi, short for Jymbilung, which means ‘friend’ in the native Indigenous language.”
Jymbi is a three-year-old Standard Groodle, who began specific therapy training when he was about nine months old.
Dr Pennant recalled one story in particular that inspired her to continue her work with Jymbi.
“We were working with an Indigenous man who had an acquired brain injury, a history of abuse and a horrific history of trauma and addiction,” she said.
“One of the issues we were working on was his anger management, and one day Jymbi was lying on his feet during a session, and my client got really angry about recalling a story so Jymbi rolled away from him towards me.
“I was then able to observe that with him, and because he loves Jymbi, he was really able to understand the impact his anger has on his relationships with those close to him,” Dr Pennant said.
Developments in the use of dogs as therapy are moving at a faster pace than the research behind its success.
The study by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information suggests that human-animal interaction lowers the release of the stress chemical cortisol in tense situations, and increases the release of the mood enhancing chemical oxytocin in most circumstances, which also increases feelings of trust.
The study also found that stress-induced raised blood pressure could drop significantly when the stressed person was in the presence of dogs.
While research is limited, it is also growing and branching out to incorporate not just dogs, but the use of other animals in therapy settings.
Like many others in the therapy dog industry, Judith Levron is working towards a more tightly regulated system to ensure that both patients and the animals have the best care.
Ms Levron, who is a volunteer with the Australian Network for the Development of Animal Assisted Therapy (ANDAAT), said she had noticed a rise in the use of anything from ponies to farm animals like chickens in a therapy setting.
However, she said as the use of therapy dogs in particular continued to grow, she was worried that a lack of government monitoring and legislation would result in a poorly trained industry of both dogs and their trainers.
“There are several organisations that are claiming to be able to train you to become an assistance or therapy dog trainer, but they know nothing about the myriad of issues relating to the human’s health problems,” Ms Levron said.
“Anyone can do a simple TAFE course in dog training, but there are no stipulations about the assessment of the animals, and what happens to those who fail – where do they go?”
Dr Grant said she was also hopeful that pet therapy would continue to develop in the right direction, maintaining the professionalism of the industry.
“It really is a professional form of therapy,” she said.
“I don’t just show up to a session and go: ‘Okay Darcy, go and entertain the crowd’.”
“I will always have an agenda, goals and strategies so we can work together to achieve the best outcome.”