Friday, November 30, 2012

Animal Therapy: Yea or 'Neigh'?

There seems to be an undeniable relationship between humans and animals, especially when it comes to innate, mutual trust. Animal therapy, especially equine therapy, used to be regarded as a “hokey” or “crackpot” alternative method of therapy used almost exclusively by the wealthy elite. However, the positive effects of animal therapy or even the mere presence of animals is hard to ignore.

My dog, Koby, can be difficult to get along with. She's adorable, but she is unpredictable and can be aggressive when strangers approach her. That's why my stepmom was nervous when her friend, Nanette, came over with her daughter, Taelor. Taelor had Prader-Willi syndrome, and my stepmom didn't want Koby to scare or possibly harm her, so when Tae and Nanette arrived, she grabbed Koby and started to lead her outside.

“You don't have to do that,” Nanette said. The idea of having Koby in the room made my stepmom anxious, but Nanette insisted. “Don't put her outside. Trust me.”

So Koby stayed in. What happened next was astounding. Koby walked up to Tae and sniffed her curiously as dogs will do. Tae fearlessly reached out and pet Koby with a calm gentleness that suggested the two had been longtime friends. Koby didn't growl, tense up, or raise her hair like she normally does upon meeting new people. Somehow there was an automatic exchange of trust between Tae and Koby, an understanding that each needed to be gentle with the other.

I couldn't tell you how these two were able to communicate so naturally with one another, but it seems that this subconscious connection between people and animals and the mutual benefits of these companionships are particularly strong within the disabled community.

Horses are often used to help people with physical disabilities like cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy improve their posture, balance, and mobility. However, the healing powers of horses, like those of other animals, go beyond the physical. Animals can be great supporters because they are naturally nonjudgemental. They don't care whether or not you can hit a baseball the farthest or paint a picture that looks like a photograph. Animals are extremely accepting creatures. As long as you are loving to them, they will love you back no matter what.

Animals are also great teachers. They can teach us how to be gentle, kind, and respectful, and how to care for living things. Animals also teach us that we are needed and that we are important. They are always happy to see us, and they let us know that even on those days when we feel completely worthless, we aren't. They teach us that we matter and that we are wanted and loved.

One of my favorite parts about being around animals is that they have this strange ability to take away any anxiety, stress, or fear I may have been feeling. Sometimes, as was the case with Tae and Koby, the animal's anxieties can be alleviated, too. (Tae did a much better job at calming Koby down than I ever could.) Studies have shown how effectively animals can make people relax. They have a sort of magical effect on people that can be very beneficial when trying to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings or situations. Animals make us brave, and they love us for it!

Whether the scientific community says there is enough evidence to support the effectiveness of animal therapy or not, I say (in all of my scientific knowledge) yea to animals and yea to people. What I have seen has been enough to make me believe in the healing nature of the human-animal relationship. And besides, who could deny an opportunity to play with soft, fluffy animals?

Click here to learn about Taelor's story.

1 comment:

  1. I used to volunteer with an equine therapy organization. It's true; the horses really know when someone is vulnerable and they are gentle with them.