It is well known that many victims of childhood sexual abuse suffer with psychological conditions and symptoms that affect their day to day life and ability to function.
The symptoms of these conditions are debilitating and can be treated by various traditional psychotherapies including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, EDMR and counselling.
At Emmott Snell Solicitors, we recently heard of a child who was assisted and benefited by being placed with a foster family who owned a ‘therapy dog’.
What is a therapy dog?
Therapy dogs are not as well known and can be used to help people in a therapeutic way by providing affection and comfort and companionship in a range of settings. This may include those who suffer mental health difficulties such as post traumatic stress disorder, a condition often found in victims of sexual abuse.
In contrast, assistance/service dogs are trained to help disabled people with specific tasks.
How is a dog selected and trained to be a therapy dog?
Like service dogs, therapy dogs must go through a selection process which usually includes a health and temperament test. It is essential that they are of the right temperament, friendly, tolerant (of people and other animals) and placid in nature.
This usually means that they must be at least a year old and past the playful puppy stage.
Once a dog has been identified as suitable they undergo training. The extent and nature of this training will depend on what activities it is envisaged the dog will be involved in.
What can therapy dogs be used for?
Therapy dogs can be used in a variety of settings and activities. These include but are not limited to the following:
- Visits to care home
- Visits to hospitals and hospices
- Engaging in reading support programmes in schools
What can a therapy dog do to help a person who has suffered sexual abuse?
There are a number of ways that therapy dogs may be able to help victims of sexual abuse. These include but are not limited to the following:
- The simple act of laying their head on an anxious/traumatised person’s lap. This can help to centre them and bring them back to the present.
- Petting/stroking a dog releases oxytocin, a stress- reducing hormone, which could greatly benefit an abuse survivor who suffers with stress due to their experiences.
- Companionship for those who feel lonely and isolated.
- A therapy dog can be trained to wake their owner from a nightmare to help with sleep interruption.
- Many victims of abuse are panicked/anxious in public and/busy places and therefore feel isolated, scared to leave their own home. A dog can help with this by standing behind their owner to act as a buffer against a crowd.
- Dogs require regular walking. This gives an owner a reason to leave the house and exercise which may aid mental health.
How can a therapy dog help a victim of abuse with their recovery through psychological therapies?
Therapy dogs can also be used to help in a victim’s counselling. Counselling can be an uncomfortable experience for some victims, but the presence of a dog can help them to feel more at ease and, therefore, more likely to open up. This will in turn help the victim to gain the most from their counselling sessions.
The presence of a dog has been proven to be effective in counselling children. Many children will talk directly to the dog, even if they have been unable to talk to any other person in their lives.
The reasoning behind this is thought to be that the dog will not judge and therefore, be seen as a safe ally to which a person can openly talk to.
Can a therapy dog help in a court room setting?
Victims of sexual abuse may find themselves having to give evidence in criminal proceedings. Dogs are beginning to be used within court procedures, especially in cases of sexual abuse. It has been reported that in 2016 a court in Victoria, Australia used an ‘emotional support dog’ in an attempt to help abuse victims in giving evidence in court. It was hoped that the presence of the dog would reduce the anxiety of those giving evidence which would, in turn, prevent the victims from withdrawing their claim. Many victims are understandably fearful of giving evidence in court. The use of support dogs in court is also effective if the victims are children: the dog helps to make court a more ‘child-friendly’ environment and helps to make them feel more relaxed. Furthermore, the presence of a dog can provide the same support to a child as that of an adult, but a dog cannot be accused of interfering with the court proceedings or effecting the outcome. It is hoped that the courts in England and Wales will recognise the benefits these dogs bring in a court room setting and their use may become more widely available.
Whilst the use of therapy dogs is relatively new we hope that their use will become more widespread. Whilst we are not suggesting that they replace traditional psychotherapies it appears that they can be of benefit victims of sexual abuse in facilitating their psychological recovery, as well as in the criminal justice process.