Thursday, 21 April 2011

Mutually beneficial relationships

With the stresses and strains of everyday life more and more people are noticing the potential positive affects that animals can bring to adults and children alike.

As pet owners, we know that when we have had a bad day at the office, there is nothing better than being greeted by our animals. Whether we are riding our horses, walking the dog, or just cuddling up on the sofa with the cat, there is an increasing amount of research indicating the true value that our pets have on our health and well being.

There are various ways that animals can help people, and it is categorized in so many different ways - Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT ) , Animal Assisted Activity (AAA), Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) .... the list goes on.Essentially, with all the above, the aim is to bring an animal into the world of an individual, where he/she becomes a fundamental part of a person's treatment. It is designed to improve the physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning of the patient, as well as provide education, build life skills, and develop motivation.

To give you an example, a child with autism may be finding it difficult to cope in a world as it can seem extremely unpredictable and therefore frightening at times. This often causes a child to breakdown (having what is often called a “tantrum” or “meltdown”.

Now, I could go on about the research involved in this area, how it is thought that dogs help children affected by autism, but as I have been involved in a project of this kind, I would rather mention the firsthand accounts as to how dogs provide comfort and reassurance, really changing the lives of these children and families so dramatically in such a short space of time.I have witnessed the transformation of a 12 year old girl affected by autism, very withdrawn, terrified of leaving the home, simply through the presence of a dog, she became more confident, learning how to care for the dog and understand its own potential fears, and overcame her own anxieties over time.

I have also experienced a boy of 7 years old talking for the first time, he first day that his puppy arrived at the home, that motivation to speak to a person that is non-judgment.This is wonderful, the building of positive relationships between person and animal for improved health and well being. Indeed, this is an area that is fast developing within the UK, and will increase in time.

However, it is vital that these relationships are positive for all involved, both the person and the animal. We do not want stressed animals - whether in the form of a horse who is fearful of people, a cat that is stressed being passed from pillar to post, or a dog that may snap at any moment. We want animals who are full of character, feel confident in themselves, and positive about the world.

So perhaps this area is not as simple as it sounds after all? It is not a matter of simply paring an animal with a person and hoping that it goes to plan, its about raising confident animals in positive environments, to build truly therapeutic relationships between people and animals for the future.


  1. Katie,

    I have a problem with one of my horses.
    It is a 16yr old gelding, I have had him for 11 years now.
    When I bought him he had already a problem with his hind legs when he walks. He lifts them very high as if he has no control over it and than brings it down with a hard smack. Much more on the left than the right one, but both legs have the problem.

    I have given him all sorts of therapies you can think of, but the only thing I have learned from it is that we both have to live with it. It cannot be cured.
    So he is on pension since his 5yrs, so far so good.

    My main problem is to take care of his feet.
    He does not want to lift his feet for me to clean them out or anything else.
    Positive reinforcement does not help because he will just not DO it.
    I have tried everything and I feel so frustrated!

    Just now again I wanted to take care of his feet which really need doing urgently.
    Finally I managed to clip his right front foot, just getting the worse off. He really wanted his foot back so I wanted to do the left one.
    It became a struggle between him and me and in the end I got so worked up that I threw all my beautiful principles overboard and hit him with the whip! His foot did not get done and he ran away from me!

    I cried like a baby afterwards because despite of all my good intentions, my soft approach for years and the best effort I try, he will still not cooperate. Even though he must suffer from long hooves.

    I don't know anymore what to do...

  2. Hi Ama

    The first thing that would need to be looked at before any behavioural work can be successfully administered would be to get full clearance from your vet to ensure there is no pain/discomfort stopping your positive reinforcement to work effectively.

    With a structured plan based firstly around the ethology of the horse, and secondly positive reinforcement and structured sessions. I will be happy to help you find a more local trainer for you if I can!

    Best Wishes