Eight Ways to Ensure the Mental Health of our Therapy Animals

June 3, 2019

Therapy animal handlers enjoy volunteering their time to enhance the lives of others, but a 2018 Applied Animal Behaviour Science study asked whether or not therapy animals actually like their jobs. Reassuringly, the study found that 26 therapy dogs working across various pediatric oncology settings did not show increased stress during their time spent working with patients. However, this research sparks a conversation about how crucial it is that we take the appropriate steps to protect the mental health of our therapy animals. See what actions you can take to protect the mental health of your therapy animal in the midst of a potentially stressful field.

1. Understand the Five Basic Freedoms

To ensure that the mental health of our therapy animals is preserved, basic animal welfare considerations need to be taken. These basic welfare considerations fall under the “five freedoms,” which include:

  1. Freedom from thirst, hunger, and malnutrition
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
  4. Freedom from fear and distress
  5. Freedom to express most normal behavior.

These five freedoms will be evident throughout our discussion of animal mental health, because without paying attention to these tenants, mental (as well as physical) health can be compromised.

3. Start with Positive Training

Training with therapy animals should always be based upon a system of positive rewards, not negative punishments. As with humans, stress increases in animals during fear of negative punishments. Research has proven that dogs are more obedient when positive punishments are involved, and tend to “sour” when exposed to aversive conditioning. Beginning with a basis of positive training [insert Positive Training article here] will contribute to the overall maintenance of your therapy animal’s mental health, as well as your therapy team bond.

4. Never force your animal to go to work

At Pet Partners, it is important that our therapy animals enjoy participating in animal-assisted interactions, not merely tolerate them.

Ask yourself: does your animal get excited when his or her harness or vest comes out? Does your pet welcome physical interaction with strangers? Does your therapy animal behave with the same excitement he or she used to when you first became a registered team? If you answered no to any of these questions, your animal may feel coerced into participating in therapy visits. Our animals should always enjoy their interactions with clients. If you notice changes, it may be in their best interest to decrease the amount of visits, or retire the animal altogether.

5. Recognize and respond to body language

There are many aspects of a visit that can be stressful to even the most well-trained therapy animal. Constant exposure to stressful situations can deteriorate our therapy animals’ health over time. Take a look at some of the ways you can tell your dog is stressed out during a visit [link to Stress During Visit].

As a handler, you should be aware of the intricacies of your animal’s body language. Perhaps your cat always crouches down with dilated pupils when he’s stressed, or your mini horse paws at the ground when he feels overwhelmed. Whatever your animal’s tell-tale stress signals are, always be sure to comfort your animal with PETS, or remove your animal from the situation and allow them time to fully recover. Even though Pet Partners visits should never exceed two hours, but it is always best to cut a visit short when your animal is stressed. Regular rest breaks can alleviate the effects that stressful situations may have on an animal.

6. Advocate for your animal

It takes a special animal to be able to provide animal-assisted interventions, and it takes a special bond for these interventions to be safe and effective. You know better than anyone where your dog does or does not want to be pet, what sounds your cat is afraid of, or the perfect way to hold your llama’s double leash. Because our animals cannot speak for themselves, it is up to you to advocate using YAYABA and educate our clients on the best way to interact with our animals. This will cut down on any unnecessary stress or incidents.

7. Continue to add to body of knowledge

To date, a plethora of research has been published about how therapy animals impact the mental health of humans. However, there has not been much research done on the mental health of our therapy animals, especially outside of the realm of canines. Pet Partners began because our founders understood the importance of increasing the amount of research on the human-animal bond. Continuing in their footsteps and adding to the body of knowledge regarding the mental health of our therapy animals will help not only our therapy animals, but the advancement of our field.

8. Provide novel experiences and enrichment

Just as we expect ourselves to practice self-care and have work-life balance, the same opportunities should be afforded to our therapy animals. Make sure you allow your therapy animal to partake in his favorite activity, like swimming or going on long runs. Homemade enrichment activities are also a low-cost way to ensure that your animal is properly stimulated. Below are enrichment resources for each of Pet Partners nine eligible species:

Pet Partners cares about your therapy animal’s mental health

At Pet Partners, we pride ourselves on being the gold standard of therapy animal registration programs. A large part of this is because we care so deeply about the welfare of our therapy animals. While an animal’s physical health is often obvious to the naked eye, mental health requires the care and commitment of the handler. With ongoing conversation and constant concentration on the mental health of our therapy animals, we can continue to provide the gold standard of AAI to our clients and facilities.

How do you ensure that you take care of your therapy animals’ mental health? Feel free to contact us with ideas, resources, or questions.


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