A Youth’s Best Friend: Animal Therapy and Trauma

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February 17, 2023
Helena Lopes/Unsplash, Creative Commons This post was co-authored by Hannah Mugford and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D. Pet therapy is a service that offers animal-assisted emotional support to…
Helena Lopes/Unsplash, Creative Commons

This post was co-authored by Hannah Mugford and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.

Pet therapy is a service that offers animal-assisted emotional support to people struggling with a wide variety of mental health challenges. The animals used in pet therapy vary, with dogs and cats being the most common. The use of animals for emotional and physical support goes as far back as the 1600s, and today, the services offered by pet therapy organizations are diverse.

Animal therapy has several benefits, which include providing company, support, and loving, non-judgmental companionship for children. Therapeutic Paws of Canada (TPOC) has been offering pet therapy for over 20 years, during which it has amassed over 600 volunteers and their pets.

The programs they offer that are geared towards children require that the pets undergo an additional certification beyond the basic certification that allows the animals to work with adults and seniors. TPOC’s Vice Chair, Michele Peddle, explains that the evaluation the animals require in order to work with children is a completely different test. The cats and dogs have to be “bomb-proof.” This refers to the animal being able to go into any situation—noise, trauma, high emotions, confusion—and remain calm. The evaluation is essentially a temperament test, not an obedience test. As Peddle puts it, “The ones that can handle sirens going off, people running around, just any crazy situation: They are bomb-proof animals.”

One program offered by TPOC, called “Paws-Abilities,” caters to children with mental or physical disabilities brought on by trauma. In these cases, the animal can aid the children who struggle with motivation or require emotional support during difficult tasks, such as physiotherapy.

Peddle recalls a case where a young boy was able to make remarkable progress with a therapy dog. This particular young boy couldn’t walk, and on one occasion during an animal therapy visit, he was sitting in his teacher’s lap, and he suddenly arched his back and stood up with his arms out, trying to get to the dog. This was quite shocking, because the child had never been able to stand. “I don’t know how to explain it. They trust the dogs,” said Peddle.

In the “Paws to Read” program, Peddle’s dog, Jasmine, worked closely with a boy with severe disabilities. Peddle would bring Jasmine to this boy’s school on a regular basis. In addition to the joy he experienced when seeing Jasmine, the dog’s presence encouraged the boy’s classmates to interact with and spend more time with him. Jasmine ended up being a lifelong source of comfort and social interaction. The boy is now a young adult and the partnership he had with Jasmine never faltered; their connection endured and was a huge part of his life growing up.

One recent addition to the children’s programs at TPOC is the “Support Pet” program, which works directly with the Canadian courts, police agencies, and organizations such as the Victim Witness Assistance Program. These pets are provided by request to offer emotional support to victims and witnesses of violent crime being interviewed in court.

At TPOC, the most common type of cases they receive requests for are child trafficking and sexual abuse, and the support animal sits by the child to reassure and support them while they recount traumatic memories. Peddle’s own dog has participated in this program, and she recalls one occasion during which her dog laid at a young girl’s feet for two hours and did not move other than to look up at her as if to say, “You’re okay? Okay.” Peddle insists that the animals working in their various child-oriented therapy programs, especially the Support Pet program, are naturally inclined to taking on this supportive role, as if they are able to sense the child’s needs and respond appropriately. “You can’t train it into them. They either get it or they don’t,” said Peddle.

Hannah Mugford is a contributing writer at the Trauma and Mental Health Report.

Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.