Incorporating animals into therapeutic mental health treatment is a practice that has existed for decades, if not centuries. Today, animal-assisted therapy might mean anything from visiting stables with a therapist and interacting with horses to owning an emotional support animal for constant companionship. Animal interaction has proven benefits for people of all ages and has been shown to positively impact mental health.
Children with behavioral concerns or difficulty relating to their peers can find comfort in connecting with animals instead. Demonstrating care for and attention to another living creature, and having them return that compassion, can do wonders for self-esteem and lead to improved social interactions.
Therapy animals can also help ease symptoms of posttraumatic stress, decrease anger and aggressive behaviors, and produce positive physical outcomes such as lowered blood pressure and decreased heart rate.
There are many different ways to engage in animal-assisted therapy, and most are relatively low-risk. If you are curious about animal-assisted therapy in any of its forms, even if you already have some experience with animals in therapy, check out GoodTherapy.org’s top animal-assisted therapy resources of 2017.
- Therapy Dogs International: Founded in 1976, Therapy Dogs International is the oldest registry for therapy dogs in the United States. The nonprofit’s website offers detailed information on its volunteer programs, including disaster relief, hospice visits, and literacy interventions. The site also has instructions for becoming a certified therapy dog handler.
- ADI: Assistance Dogs International: ADI, a coalition of nonprofit assistance dog organizations, has chapters across the globe. The website provides an extensive guide to all laws regarding service dogs. In addition, people who visit ADI’s site can learn about how therapy dogs participate in children’s reading programs, disaster relief efforts, hospice care, and assisted living centers.
- Pet Partners: This therapy animal program advocates for awareness of the therapeutic benefits of the human-animal bond, and screens and registers therapy animal teams of nine species. The site provides online courses on infection control and canine body language and publishes a bi-annual free magazine in full-color PDF format. The organization is active in all 50 states and has 501(c)3 nonprofit status.
- Red Rover: A charity organization that helps animals and people in crisis, Red Rover seeks to help people in situations of domestic violence stay with their pets. People who are experiencing poverty, domestic violence, or a natural disaster can apply on the charity’s website for financial aid or emergency pet housing. The digital portal also has a blog and resource library where visitors can access information.
- NEADS World Class Service Dogs: NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services) is a 501(c)3 organization that trains and places service dogs to assist people with physical disabilities and hearing loss, children with autism and other developmental conditions, veterans, and others. The website explains how NEADS service dogs can help with each condition and describes how dogs are trained through its Prison PUP Program.
- Merlin’s Kids: This nonprofit, which relies on charitable donations to operate, trains rescue dogs for service roles. The website explains the training process for each role the rescue dogs might take on, whether this is detecting cortisol levels in children with autism or learning to detect cancer in firefighters, and also provides visitors with information on how to apply for a service dog.
- Pets for Vets: Pets for Vets is a nonprofit that prepares shelter dogs to become companion animals for veterans by teaching them how to detect panic attacks, maneuver with wheelchairs, and so on. The website offers visitors a library of resources on pet care, mental health, and job opportunities for veterans. Visitors can also read about the “matches” this program has made through featured stories of the veterans’ experiences with meeting their service animal.
- Can Do Canines: This nonprofit places service animals. One of the first organizations to train dogs to detect low glucose levels, Can Do Canines assists people who experience deafness, mobility issues, autism, seizures, and diabetes. Visitors to the site can apply for a service animal online or learn more about how the dogs are trained.
- HABRI CENTRAL: Dedicated to studying the bond between humans and companion animals, this digital platform has a library of research, extensive discussion forums, and a scholar-run blog. HABRI Central is supported by the nonprofit HABRI, or the Human Animal Bond Research Institute. People with specific physical or mental health concerns can search for studies related to service animals and the issue in question.
- The Animal Legal and Historical Center: Visitors to this digital compendium of legal information regarding animals can search for nearly any type of wild or domesticated animal by topic, species, legal restriction, country, and state. The Animal Legal and Historical Center also contains a large FAQ section on emotional support animals. The Michigan State University College of Law has been running this website since 2002. People looking for information on emotional support or therapy animal laws in their area may find this resource helpful.
- Martin, F., & Farnum, J. (2002). Animal-assisted therapy for children with pervasive developmental disorders. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24(6), 657-670. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/019394502320555403
- Odendaal, J. S. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy—magic or medicine? Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49(4), 275-280. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022399900001835
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