(Buffalo N.Y.) – A western New York group is working to provide information and support to people interested in using a therapy animal to cope with physical or emotional issues.
Therapy Animals of Western New York (or TAWNY) also works with people who are interested in training their furry friend to become a therapy dog.
The group, which was established in 2010, is composed of veterinarians, animal rescue workers, certified animal trainers and others. However, TAWNY does not train or certify animals to work in a therapy setting.
Pamela Rose, a medical librarian and member of TAWNY, appeared on the Buffalo Review March 13 to discuss the benefits of therapy animals.
Rose said there are many types of therapy animals, including cats, horses, rabbits and ducks; but dogs are generally the most common type.
There are several different needs and disabilities for which therapy dogs can provide assistance, according to Rose.
There are two different levels of assisted animal therapy and the first tier includes animals, such as Guiding Eyes for the Blind, which assist those who are blind or visually impaired. These types of service animals often come with a medical prescription and their use is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Additionally, a person with a physical condition, such as muscular dystrophy, can benefit from a therapy dog trained to help carry bags of groceries or open refrigerator doors and kitchen cabinets.
“The next layer down of a service dog would be an animal that helps a person feel more emotionally secure, like a person with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said Rose.
“A person, a child with autism for example. Here’s a human being whose brain is wired differently; doesn’t recognize social cues and can’t really converse with humans very well,” she said. “Having a dog; an unconditional acceptance…can be immeasurably important in getting that person to progress, to overcome their condition.”
Therapy dogs have been proven to lower stress, anxiety and depression, and can be beneficial to those struggling with PTSD or panic attacks, according to Rose.
“A child in a wheelchair…the dog can bring them things in their mouth. They can be trained to do that and just to be with them, to make them feel less conspicuous.”
Not every dog is a good candidate to become a therapy animal and, perhaps, the most important goal is finding an animal that has a natural affinity for being around people, Rose said.
“If you take that animal to a dog park as a puppy and the first thing that it does is run and play with the other dogs, it might not be a suitable candidate,” she said.
It is also important for the animal to be confident, willing to be trained and not particularly fearful, Rose said. “That means that if there is a loud bang in the distance, the animal should alert, but if the animal begins to cower for any reason, that is not a good sign.”
Finally, Rose said there is a growing problem of websites that have created unofficial or fake certificates for those looking to bring their animal into places or situations where they would usually be prohibited.
“Fake certificates are problematic, because that person (using a service animal) may be met with some skepticism at a particular establishment they’re going to,” she said. “Maybe (the establishment) has gotten burned once or twice by somebody who had a fake certificate or just brought their dog in and then the dog bit somebody (or) that sort of thing.”
She said she thinks the definition of a therapy animal should be standardized and, perhaps, included under the ADA.
* Isaiah Small contributed to this report.