Not until I joined the board of The Delta Society in 1992 did I have any idea how complex the relationship is between humans and animals. This human- animal bond extends back thousands of years. It was not until the last half of the 20th century that scientists took an interest in proving the benefits animals can provide in healing, rehabilitation and emotional support. The mission of The Delta Society(www.deltasociety.org) "is to help lead the world in advancing human health and well-being through positive interactions with animals. We help people throughout the world become healthier and happier by incorporating therapy, service and companion animals into their lives."
While on this amazing board I helped establish one of the first animal assisted therapy program into the New York hospital system. I also became an animal evaluator, matching a variety of animals to people who could benefit from interaction. These animals were mostly dogs and cats, although rabbits, birds, and a whole host of other small and large animals (even Iguanas) were also engaged. It was quite an education learning to discern the differences between appropriate and inappropriate actions while in the presence of "animals at work".
Animals are an integral part of many peoples' lives not only for companionship but for their roles in enabling people with a variety of disabilities to lead active fulfilling lives. We are familiar with seeing eye dogs for the sight impaired; we know of animals who can assist wheelchair-bound people carry out any number of tasks; but do we ever stop to think that these animals are "on duty"? Before these amazing animals can be reliable, they must go through a rigorous training program. Many do not succeed. Those that do become partnered with a person have been trained to know when they are on duty and they are off duty.
Whenever we see someone with an animal engaged in an assistance exercise of any type, we need to be aware and we need to be sure not to interfere. Imagine an invisible boundary line around this human/animal team and do not cross it.
We as outsiders are rarely sure of the extent of assistance an animal is giving a person in any particular place and time. The ability of a dog or a horse to respond to a command can be severely compromised when these boundaries are not respected.
Much of what we see are interactions known as animal assisted activities(AAA). These are non-therapeutic and are designed for people to stretch beyond the limitations of their disabilities. These limits can be physical, mental or emotional. An example would be a sight impaired person going for a walk, to the store, or to work. There are also environments such as working farms where animals are vital to many activities such as hauling carts, plowing fields, and herding cattle or sheep. These tasks seem routine enough but if you add a group of at risk youth to the mix, suddenly you have a setting for animal assisted therapy(AAT). I have seen first hand how a troubled youth can change in an instant when their need to communicate with a huge horse suddenly comes into play.
Some of us have witnessed first hand the benefits of a hospital patient or a resident of a long term care facility, suffering from high blood pressure or anxiety as they quietly stroke a rabbit or cat lying peacefully on their stomachs. Disturbing this quietude would be inappropriate and jarring to both the animal and the person. Move quietly around animals at work, especially when healing is taking place.
There are also many opportunities to become involved as a "Pet Partner", someone with a pet who wants to volunteer their time and their pet's time in either AAA or AAT. Check with your local hospitals and retirement homes to see if they have such a program. Contact The Delta Society for more information about this growing field of interest among many, many people worldwide. They can help you become a Pet Partner or assist your facility in setting up a safe and effective program.
Animals often improve our quality of life. Be aware of how you benefit. Appreciate the many ways animals can be trained to assist people with many kinds of disabilities. Respect the space that the human/animal team occupies. It shows you have compassion for these people and also a real understanding of how important respecting their boundaries are. We can avoid embarrassing and even potentially dangerous situations. The person will appreciate this and so will their animal partner.