Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Canine Therapy Corps

Author Ben Williams once wrote “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face”. According to the operators of Canine Therapy Corps, Mr. Williams got it just right. What the Canine Therapy Corps offers is Animal Assisted Therapy to both the mentally and physically challenged. Dogs from Canine Therapy Corps provide a variety of services to both children and adults.

Kelly Cozzolino and her six-year-old red nosed Pitbull Rue are one of the many teams that work with the CTC. Kelly is both the owner and handler of Rue. Kelly and Rue have primarily worked with both the autistic and young adolescent boys suffering from depression and PTSD. At the Easter School, a school for young autistic children, Rue is a fan favorite. During an 8-week program Rue participated in conversation therapy that was guided by speech pathologists. They used a process called Picture Exchange Coordination and put the concept to use as a familiar game, Bingo. Each student also got to engage in individual breakout sessions where they could get one on one interaction with Rue. Kelly says that an individual session has the most impact because “…autism is such a idiosyncratic unique disorder no cases are similar to work with individual goals.”

Canine Therapy Corps employs over 60 volunteer dogs. All dogs must be at a minimum of one year old and most retire by the time they are seven or eight years old. Every single trainer and handler is also the individual pets owners. All owners participate on a completely volunteer basis. Most dogs only work in one specific program but others can do two programs. This is primarily due the dogs being domesticated house pets, not working animals. Usually a 30-minute session tires them out for the day.

One of the many programs Canine Therapy Corps is involved with is through The Heartland Alliance. The Heartland Alliance in the Non-governmental organization that primarily deals with displaced immigrants. The dogs from Canine Therapy Corps meet both young men and women, often the victims of human trafficking and sexual assault, with issues like anxiety and depression. Many of these patients do not speak English, but the love of a dog is a universal language.

The use of canine therapy is part of a larger therapeutic method known as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). The American Veterinary Medical Association defines AAT as a process that “is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, or cognitive function.” Dogs, horses, and even dolphins have been used have been utilized by a wide variety of mental health practitioners.

Both animal and patient must be highly qualified to partake in animal therapy. Hospitals evaluate precipitating factors such as fear of animals, allergies, or the immunocompromised cancer or HIV patient. Facilities such as Canine Therapy Corps make sure their four legged furry therapists are up to the task. Dogs go through a stringent evaluation that examines their disposition, trainability, physical health, and ability to cope with special circumstances like elevators or areas with loud noises.

Dr. Jeannette Rossetti of the Northern Illinois School of Nursing and Health Studies recently compiled an extensive analysis of previous studies regarding AAT. She found that in many cases AAT was able to patients with issues such and socialization anxiety and depression, but often the complicated time consuming process of AAT served as a roadblock. Also, she said it seemed that whether or not the patients were simply “…dog people or not…” had a significant impact on a their willingness to engage the animals. Also, she found that a large portion of the medical staff had a phobia of animals and many either refused or complied with serious reservations about working with animals.

How applicable is dog therapy to other types of mental illnesses? Can dogs be used to relieve stress in inmates in improve their cognitive reaction treatment or used to break down barriers of the abused. There are still so many questions regarding mental health and as traditional treatments funding continually gets cut, new approaches need to be utilized. Even for those without severe mental debilitations, there may be an unmatchable therapeutic strength to sitting down with mans best friend and enjoying some puppy Prozac.

Michael Lynch

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