Animal Therapy is a field that uses the bond between human an animal to help enhance the quality of life of those who are struggling.
For some, there’s nothing more comforting than the companionship of a pet.
But for those who are unable to come home due to health issues or hardship, this is an inaccessible luxury.
Until Animal Therapy intervenes, bringing the love of animals to facilities where people are struggling.
Delta Therapy Dogs is a not-for-profit program that brings the benefits of companionship to around 20,000 Australians each week.
With over 850 services involved in the program, Delta Therapy Dogs bring happiness to places ranging from aged care, acute care hospital, mental health, prison and dementia facilities.
Co-ordinator of the Delta Therapy Dogs` Melbourne branch, Chris Culliver, tells upstart that their volunteer dogs work hard to bring joy and compassion to those who need it most.
“All dogs are owned by their volunteers, there is no specific training but people recognise that their dog is people friendly and have a general level of obedience.”
Animal interaction releases endorphins, providing a sense of comfort and calm for many clients.
Culliver says this is evident in many therapy sessions.
“When people pet dogs and engage with animals, generally it has a calming effect, it is quite relaxing, it even lowers blood pressure,” she says.
“We’ve had instances in mental health clinics that we visited where some people might be quite agitated and then when the dog arrives and the session commences, they sit down and relax.”
Therapy dogs are often used to encourage communication particularly for those with mental health issues or even dementia to which Culliver says there are many success stories.
“It encourages clients to come out of their room and engage.”
“I’ve come out of some visits and nurses will say something like ‘that person hasn’t spoken to anyone for 3 weeks, but they’ll come and talk to the dog,” she says.
“A volunteer said that he was [at an aged care facility] and a man that had not spoken for about two years after the visit said ‘see you next week,’ everyone just looked at him and then he said ‘and don’t forget to bring your dog.’”
Culliver says some of her most rewarding work has been at prison facilities.
“It can be an area of high agitation but [inmates] would come in and sit down for the session and would just chill and talk about their dogs, their pets and their lives,” she says.
“In those type of environments, the inmates are very appreciative. They always say thank you, they always love to see the dog and they’ll sit down and talk to the dog – so that says something.”
Foster Care assistant and coordinator of the program, Jasmine Lebet, says it not only helps the inmates, but the cats too.
“It gives the cats a loving home away from a shelter environment and it gives the women a sense of purpose in a prison environment,” Lebet tells upstart
Cats are sent to the prison to be fostered for various reasons, including medical or behavioural issues and emergency boarding.
“The cats are with the women 24/7 so they are given full responsibility of caring for the cats.”
“The women medicate, feed, monitor, love and clean up after the cats,” Lebet says.
The program is thought to improve the mental wellbeing and communication skills of lonely inmates.
“I would think it could help with anxiety levels, decrease loneliness and distress the women.”
“I have been told previously, women that may keep to themselves or not have friends with their unit [and] it helps with communication as they need to discuss the responsibilities and tasks they need to do for their foster cats.”
Once nursed to full health, the fostered cats can be put up for adoption, a process that Lebet believes has a lasting affect on inmates.
“I believe that it has a heavy impact on the future choices prisoners make once they leave the correctional centre.”
“They learn responsibility and better communication skills in which they can use once leaving the centre,” she says.
Lebet says the “Second Chance” fostering program is the most rewarding program she’s been involved in and hopes it will continue to grow in the future.
Keely Lowry is a third year Bachelor of Media and communications (Journalism) student. You can follow her on twitter here: @keely_lowry