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David Baxter

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Animal Therapy Provides Support for Traumatized Youth

by Hannah Mugford, The Trauma Report
Sept 19, 2022

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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. And the use of animals for emotional and physical support go as far back as the 1600s. Today, the services offered by pet therapy organizations are diverse.

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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. The Trauma and Mental Health Report (TMHR) sat down with TPOC’s Vice Chair, Michele Peddle, to learn more about how animals are evaluated to work with children:

“It’s a completely different test, the cats and dogs have to be ‘bomb-proof.’ The animal has to be able to go into any situation—noise, trauma, high emotions, confusion—and remain calm. The evaluation that we do on them is a temperament test, not an obedience test. 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:

“We had a little boy who couldn’t walk. He was sitting in his teacher’s lap, and all of a sudden, he arched his back and stood up with his arms out, trying to get to the dog. They couldn’t believe it, because the child had never been able to stand. I don’t know how to explain it. They trust the dogs.”

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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, and in addition to the joy he experienced when seeing Jasmine, her 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. She recounts the long and rewarding partnership the boy had with Jasmine:

“He’s now 18 years old and has become such a huge part of our life. The connection they had was incredible.”

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 explains how the dogs working in the Support Pet program comfort children during the trying task of testifying in court:

“I remember two cases with children in the court. The children had just met my dog, and when it was time to get up and go into the courtroom, my dog was up and right on their heels, right to the courtroom, right up to the stand. In another case, my dog laid at this girl’s feet for two hours and did not move other than to look up at her every now and again, as if to say, ‘You’re okay? Okay.’ You can’t train it into them. They either get it or they don’t.”
 

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