How Pet Therapy Helps Elderly and Autistic People

20 Dec 2017 | Written by Freshpet
Calm, sweet therapy dogs can inspire a warm, positive response in just about anyone. That’s why there’s certainly no surprise that these specially trained pups — and sometimes other animals — are helpful resources in the care of elderly individuals and autistic children.  

The Benefits of Pet Therapy

In many cases, companion animals enhance our health and quality of life simply by being cute and lovable. We get it - the science isn't that hard to comprehend. Their positive energy is contagious and the smiles and laughter you’re left with are simply good for you. Therapy dogs often do even more good by bringing joy to elderly patients in nursing homes and hospice care facilities and by providing a non-judgmental source of social interaction to children with autism. With their ability to stay calm and accept all people, these dogs are a great resource for taking life better for these special patients.  

Pet Therapy for the Elderly

Pet therapy for elderly individuals often consists of visits with patients in hospital beds, wheelchairs or sofas. The purpose of these visits is for the dog to cuddle up to the patient and have a relaxing session of snuggles and petting. This may seem like a simple, normal experience for pet-owning families who snuggle with their pooches every day, but for hospice and nursing home patients who haven't enjoyed a normal home environment for quite some time, the loving act of petting a dog can be a major source of happiness.     Hudson, an Italian greyhound who serves as a therapy dog in San Diego-area nursing homes, has gotten non-responsive hospice patients to react to his presence by cuddling up and letting them pet him. For these gravely ill patients, the warm, soft presence of a dog helps to relieve stress and provides emotional comfort that even human family members can't always provide.  

Pet Therapy for Children with Autism

The right setting for therapy dogs that work with children depends on the individual patient's needs. Some pet therapy for autistic children takes place in formal classroom and clinic settings, but some therapy dogs are constant companions for their young charges.     In Mark Fontana's case, his black lab, Echo, is with him nearly every moment. Like his dog Echo, Mark can't communicate with speech, and this social barrier left him frustrated and frantic. His family struggled to find a way to help him feel comfortable, in spite of his challenges. They eventually learned that some service dogs are trained to help those suffering from disorders on the autism spectrum.   These days, Echo provides emotional comfort and security for Mark, helping him feel more at ease in social situations. With a cuddly, non-verbal companion at his side, Mark has more confidence at school and at other social gatherings. Echo's training makes it easier to navigate different situations and takes the pressure off Mark.  

The Right Dog for the Job

Not just any dog can become a healthcare therapy dog. It takes a special canine, and the human professionals who work with them hold them in high regard. "[Dogs are] co-therapists with me. They're well trained and highly respected," says Dr. Aubrey H. Fine, a professor and practicing therapist who uses animals as part of his child psychology practice. Dr. Fine treats the animals he works with as professionals, giving them time off and keeping them carefully groomed for work.   This approach to therapy dogs is relatively new, and it's part of a growing movement to recognize the legitimate contributions of these animals. Although petting any dog might reduce stress and spark positive feelings, a therapy dog must be extremely well behaved and patient. In a nursing home or hospice facility, they must stay calm in the face of beeping medical equipment and noisy rolling gurneys. Dogs who work with autistic children can't react aggressively if a child accidentally pets too hard or tugs a tail or ear.   This means therapy dogs need the right combination of disposition and training to do their jobs, just as human medical professionals must have the right combination of personality and education to excel in their chosen fields. The special dogs who meet the stringent criteria are incredible examples of what dogs can do for us when we show them the proper care and respect.   If you or a family member is curious about pet therapy, consider a service dog program or adoption. Organizations like 4 Paws for Ability provide service dogs for different scenarios or disabilities. Those with autism, hearing loss or other health concerns can benefit from the assistance or love of a dog!   Do you know of a friend or family member who has benefited from pet therapy, or have a therapy dog at home you’d like to shout out? Share with us below in the comments or on our Facebook page!    

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