Hand In Paw

27th Feb, 2017

Written by Jenni Davies

There’s nothing like an animal’s companionship to lift the spirits. They are non-judgemental, accepting, and their love is unconditional. They can help us immeasurably when we’re ill, be it physically or mentally. That’s why they’re increasingly forming an important part of healing treatment for people of all ages: Animal-assisted Therapy.  

The healing touch

It’s long been known that petting an animal helps to lower blood pressure, calm the heart rate, and ease anxiety. Stories abound of dogs helping children learn to walk, dolphins easing depression, cats soothing the fears of hospice patients, horses calming autistic children, and more.

But why are the effects of being around another species so profound? Lesley de Klerk, who founded Paws for People®, Gauteng, in 1997, explains that, “[Animals] are non-judgemental; they don’t bother with what’s on the outside – they see into your soul. They very often know exactly what to do with specific patients, children, or residents; they give 100%, offering love, companionship, friendship, empathy, and normality. They’re amazing teachers.”

Animals direct our attention outwards, giving our minds and bodies a chance to rest and heal without focusing on our fears or pain. They give us a reason to ‘carry on’, and help us forge social connections, encourage us to come out of our shells, and, in the case of active animals, ‘force’ us to move (exercise being a known mood-booster).

From a physiological point of view, studies show that positive animal interaction triggers release of oxytocin – the ‘happy hormone’. Not only does it make us feel good, it’s responsible for modulating inflammation levels and supporting tissue healing. Furthermore, simply touching a happy animal provides a sense of connection to another living being – something that is sadly lacking in many people’s lives today.

Our animal friends

It doesn’t matter if your dog is a pedigreed pooch or adopted township special, tiny or gigantic – personality and wanting to please are what count. Potential AAT animals enjoy being handled, and are gentle and calm by nature. ‘Special needs’ animals also have their place; a physically challanged person may feel more comfortable with a physically handicapped animal; a traumatised person may find solace with a rescued animal.

Animals are assessed for personality and obedience levels before going into training and, although you’d ideally start when they’re pups, many adult dogs can learn to be outstanding therapy animals. Strict hygiene rules usually apply and they need careful grooming (filed claws, clean coats and brushed teeth, for example) before visiting patients.

Fortunately, the perfect therapy animal is the type that will enjoy the work. De Klerk says, “There is no doubt whatsoever that our dogs love the work… when the PFP shirt goes on, great excitement erupts from the dogs – if they could talk it would be ‘pick me, pick me!’ They never waiver in their willingness to truly engage with the folks that they are visiting or working with.” She believes that, “…a dog with a job and a purpose is a happy dog”.

Where they work

The most common AAT in South Africa is probably that in which trained volunteers and their dogs visit facilities, like mental health centres, special-needs schools, hospital wards, and hospices – usually for an hour or two at a time. Therapy takes many forms, and is facilitated by the animal handler who remains in the background, speaking ‘for’ the animal when necessary. A therapist, such as a psychologist, might also be present.

Sometimes, all that happens is that the animal sits beside someone or lies on their lap, providing the comfort of their company, but, often, they’re actively ‘used’ to open a channel through which therapists communicate with a patient who may not be willing to speak or work directly with a human being. This is especially helpful for survivors of abuse, bullying and other traumas, who carry a level of shame, as well as in autism and the mentally ill. Physical therapy includes swimming with an animal, or using them to lean against. Playing with an animal – throwing a ball or walking with them, for example – can help those suffering from physical conditions affecting body strength or nerves.

De Klerk, whose area of expertise is in Paediatric Oncology, says, “What the dogs achieve is nothing short of incredible… true energy exchanges occur between the dogs and patients, and the dogs are exhausted afterwards. It is the most humbling and rewarding experience to watch our dogs work their magic in the hospitals with very ill children. They bring with them laughter, love, joy and understanding and are happy to oblige with whatever is asked of them.”

As Dr Edward Creagan, oncologist at the renowned Mayo Clinic (which runs an animal-assisted therapy programme), says, “If pet ownership was a medication, it would be patented tomorrow.” It seems that time spent with animals really is never wasted.


Learning to READ

Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) is a programme, pioneered in the USA, and run as Lees-Ukufunda-READ by Pets As Therapy (PAT), in South Africa (currently in the Western Cape only). According to PAT, it “…utilises therapy animals to help kids improve their reading and communication skills, and also teaches them to love books and reading.”

Essentially, the child reads out loud to a specially trained dog and its handler (who remains in the background, speaking on behalf of the dog and gently assisting with difficult words). Psychologist, Dr Marieanna Le Roux, of the University of Stellenbosch, recently conducted a study of 138 Grade Three children, 75% of whom could only read at Grade One level. She found that children in the programme significantly improved their reading level – some even went up to Grade 4 or 5 – and there was less absenteeism.

The child never feels embarrassed or ashamed because the dog ‘listens’ and doesn’t judge, will never ridicule them or rush them, and, essentially, creates a ‘safe space’ for them to persevere, regardless of how much they struggle. 

Did you know?

Florence Nightingale had a deep love of animals and firmly believed them to be good for ill people, advocating for both their welfare and their importance in the healthcare environment. She said, "A small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick or long chronic cases…”

Testimonial Story

Darling Dixie

Written by Jill Oliver and photography by Emma O’Brien

After my Border Collie went to the Rainbow Bridge three years ago, my good friend and animal rescuer, Dido Panagiotopoulos, sent me a picture of a very sad, lonely-looking shelter dog living on the outskirts of a large pack. The look in his eyes just got to me and off we went to bring him home.

Dixie is a Labrador-mix with a lovely ginger beard. He’d been surrendered with a female and puppies – a breeding pair that was no longer wanted; they were all adopted but, sadly, no one wanted Dixie.

Dixie was frightened of everything and everyone, and had probably been abused. Still today, if I pick up a stick or garden trowel, or even a wooden spoon, he dashes away to his bed, but he’s slowly realising that no harm is going to come his way. Dix is a shy, gentle soul but was a nervous wreck who’d never had a collar or lead on him and, quite simply, didn’t know what to do with himself when we got him home. He didn’t even want treats or food.

Dixie goes to school

I was at my wits’ end and didn’t know what to do with this dog. Eventually, I took him to the Progressive Dog Training Centre in Roodepoort West, run by Paws for People director, Lesley de Klerk, where the trainers were exceptionally kind, helpful and patient.

It was your basic obedience training that all dogs go through but, in Dixie’s case, because he was so terrified of everything, one of the loveliest trainers at Progressive Dog Training School, Jenny Williams, who does the assessments, took him under her wing. She sat with him, quietly spoke to him and caressed him most Saturdays because I’d just reached a point of exhaustion with him. After about three or four weeks, he got used to the routine and started to relax; then I could tackle the training with help from Lesley and especially Jenny.

After six months of obedience training, Dixie was accepted as a Therapy Dog. He was nervous at first, but when he realised that people were going to stroke him, rub his ears, and brush him – especially the children – he loved it. He’s really very good with the little children, some of whom have problems, and is always obliging to go for walks, often with three or four little ones hanging on to the leads! He’s greatly loved by all the children he visits on his Paws for People outings.

Lots of credit goes to Dixie’s wonderful, gentle mentor, Daisy the Standard Poodle, who showed Dixie how to behave and that all was right with the world. He learned from her that kindness and love and food were in order. After realising that no one was going to shout at him, kick him, or beat him – he has become calm, confident, loving and gentle, although still a bit shy.

Dixie will be turning seven years old in July; from a very shut down, terrified and abused dog, our Dix has proved that, with kindness, love and care, any dog can give an abundance of love and devotion back to his/her rescuer. And what a privilege it is to see how much they have to give – and receive.