There are days in which the animals I care for the only reason I make it out of bed. Having depression and anxiety make it difficult to do even the most basic things at times but I know that I’m able to do a whole lot more each day because I have all these animals depending on me. These animals consistently remind me to be patient with the everyday frustrations, to be kind and loving to many, and that trust and respect are things that are earned every day.
I say all this because I know that for me, having and caring for animals plays a big part in my daily life and has such an amazing impact on how I relate to my own mental and physical health. And there are so many others with stories like mine, where animals have made a difference in their lives. So on World Mental Health Day, I thought I’d take some time to explore the world of service and therapy animals.
Maybe you’ve seen or interacted with service or therapy animals before: the most visible seem to be service dogs with bright vests that help people with a wide variety of issues. Some folks need dogs for mobility reasons – the dogs have been trained to get much used items from different places, open doors, turn lights on and off, and much more. Other times, service dogs help alert their owners on their blood sugar if they’re diabetic or of an allergy. And in other cases, it might not be immediately obvious as to why a person would need a service dog but invisible illnesses are still just as real and valid. People might need a service dog to help with various things whether we on the outside can tell or not.
- The rule for service dogs: don’t touch or distract them (rules on interacting with service dogs) – Dr. Karen Becker, Healthy Pets
There’s a difference between a service and therapy animal. If you see a service dog out in public, there’s a good chance that this dog is working and that means petting them and saying hi is off limits. They need to stay focused on their job of taking care of their person. If you see a service dog (who usually wear a vest and patch that say they are working), the best thing you can do is admire the dog from afar and let them do their job. Their job, in so many cases, is to assist their person and distractions can be detrimental to that.
- Service Animals: ADA Requirements – U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division
Therapy animals, on the other hand, are meant to be pet because in many cases, their job is to provide comfort and support. Universities will sometimes have therapy dogs (or even other therapy animals!) during the last week or two before the end of the quarter or semester. Nursing homes and hospitals will occasionally have therapy animals come in to spend time with patients and clients. The point, for many therapy animals, is to be interacted with; you’re actively welcomed to pet these dogs or say hi to these animals.
- Pet Talk: Therapy dogs offer furry healing only a four-legged friend can provide – Monique Balas, OregonLive
There are so many different ways that therapy animals help folks. There are programs of kids learning to read and becoming more confident by reading out loud to dogs. Dogs seem to be the most common service and therapy animal but there are other therapy animals all around the United States.
Animals as Natural Therapy and NorthWest Therapeutic Riding Center are just two organizations that have animals (like horses) as therapy measures for at risk youth, veterans, and people of all abilities to learn new skills. Animals as Natural Therapy also has a wide variety of animals on their 5 acre farm, including horses, mini horses, goats, and chickens. I’ve met a few of their animals through their mobile animal team, including Pearl Jam the rooster (pictured here)!
Down in Vancouver, Washington, there is Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, a faith based nonprofit that focuses on animal assisted therapy through llamas and alpacas. Two of their llamas are even available to be at weddings! I actually met Rojo the llama while at university in Portland, OR a few years back. There’s also JNK Llama Farm in Bellingham, Washington that, among other things, does work with therapy llamas.
Despite the wide range of things that therapy animals can do, there’s still not a whole lot of research that delves into the actual impact of human-animal interactions. There are so many anecdotes, my own included, that support the idea that having an animal in your life is beneficial to people’s mental and physical health. But there’s a limited amount of scientific evidence that supports that sentiment. There is a paper by Molly Crossman at Yale University that looks at several studies around human-animal interactions and proposes several solutions for further research.
And there’s another paper that looks at several scientific studies and found that there is a positive impact of therapy animals on: anxiety, stress, aggression, and more. That paper, by Andrea Beetz, Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg, Henri Julius,, and Kurt Kotrschal, found that while there were well documented effects of human-animal interactions for things like social behavior, interpersonal interactions, and mood, there is still a limited amount of evidence on how these interactions influence pain management, empathy and trust towards others, and learning.
There’s so much more in the conversation around service and therapy animals that I haven’t even touched on yet. For example: different laws impact service/therapy animals and their handlers in different ways. Some day soon I’ll write about that and much more but for now, I’ll just say that at least in my own opinion, service and therapy animals of all kinds make an incredible difference each and every day. Service animals allow for many to deal with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses and help their person accomplish different tasks every day. Even without an abundance of clear scientific evidence around therapy animals, there are anecdotal stories of people benefiting from being around therapy animals and for that, I’m personally grateful.