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How Animal-Assisted Therapy Heals the Body and Mind

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When healing isn’t solely in doctors’ hands, sometimes a paw or hoof can help.

For years, animal-assisted therapy has been used to improve the physical and emotional well-being of children and adults with disabilities or illnesses. At facilities like Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding in Milton, certified therapists employ horses to help riders with balance, muscle strength and motor skills.

“When a rider is mounted, the movement of the horse replicates the human gait in rhythm, symmetry and 3D movement—an experience that is difficult to replicate in a traditional therapy environment,” the facility’s website says. “Interaction with the horses also provides psychological benefits.” These include exercising in fresh country air, increased self-esteem and decreased anxiety.

Animal therapy is now being embraced in other areas of traditional healthcare, where dogs, cats and even bunnies offer love and encouragement to sick patients.

“Having a four-legged furry friend walk in instead of a doctor can be the first time a parent has seen a child smile since they’ve come into the hospital,” says Melissa Nicely, child life program manager at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington.

At Nemours, therapy dogs are used for both inpatient and outpatient services. Whether children have been hospitalized for days or are just there for a checkup, petting or snuggling with a dog can make a world of difference, Nicely says.

And they’re not just for the patients. Family members can also spend time with the dogs while their children sleep, Nicely says.  “It’s really a great opportunity for families to take a breath and feel like themselves again.”

All therapy dogs at Nemours are certified and have prior work experience, and also go through a rigorous application process that includes a “doggy interview,” where staff observe how they react in a hospital setting. As Nicely explains, even dogs that are used to people can become nervous or unpredictable in a hospital setting.

Newark’s PAWS for People pet therapy nonprofit recruits, trains, certifies and places therapy teams (animal and handler) in more than 110 sites in Delaware, as well as Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The organization works with hospital and hospice patients, eldercare and children with disabilities, among others.

Lynne Robinson, PAWS’ founder and executive director, says she’s noticed patients push themselves further to get better when they interact with the animals, one of the many benefits her nonprofit will reveal in a self-published book called “Healers,” scheduled for a fall release.

Renowned author Richard Louv, best known for “Last Child in the Woods” (2005, Algonquin Books) and for coining the term “nature deficit disorder,” is also well-versed on the topic of animal therapy.

In “Our Wild Calling: How Connecting With Animals Can Help Save Our Lives—and Theirs,” set to be released by Algonquin Books in November, Louv continues to look at humans’ relationship with nature.

“In the introduction to the book, I describe an encounter with a black fox on a trail on Kodiak Island in Alaska,” says Louv, who lives in Julian, California.   “Those moments, for me, had an unexpected transformational quality. Time seemed to stop.”

Later, he recalled similar moments with other animals—including deeply meaningful relationships with pets. “In pursuit of the mysterious power of such experiences,” Louv continues, “I have asked friends, colleagues and strangers of different ages and cultures and professions—scientists, psychologists, theologians, trackers, teachers, physicians, traditional healers and one polar explorer—to share their own stories.

“I became fascinated with what seem to be altered states of consciousness experienced during these encounters, particularly the sense of time and space, and how these moments both enlarged and humbled them.”

Louv sees the use of animal-assisted therapy continuing to grow, correlating with what health officials are seeing as an epidemic of human loneliness.

“Both domestic and wild animals can have a profoundly important impact on us,” Louv says. “They help us every day, even when we are not aware or do not acknowledge that help. They expand our senses, teach us empathy and communicate with us in ways that science is only beginning to understand.”

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