Animals help relieve stress and heal injuries to mental health caused by a discriminatory society.

Prejudice takes a toll on the LGBTQ community and our mental health, but dogs, provided one is not allergic to them, can be stress relieving.

While the phrase, “animal therapy,” may conjure images of reclining on a couch while talking to a dog psychologist, most of us are more likely to encounter an animal therapy team in less stereotypically psychological settings.

Georgia Voice interviewed Melissa Saul of CAREing Paws to find out more about how animal therapy works.

CAREing Paws engages in two types of animal therapy. The first is when they visit facilities to help relieve the stress of people there. The second is the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program, in which children read out loud to dogs.

Before the pandemic, therapy dog teams would visit facilities like hospitals and nursing homes, where the opportunity to pet a dog could help patients feel more comfortable or remind elders of beloved pets at home. Therapy dog teams would also go to elementary schools and libraries to encourage students to read.

Speaking of therapy dog teams’ work in nursing homes before the pandemic, Saul said “It brings a smile, it brings joy to their day, physically, it helps to calm them and make them feel happy.”

The pandemic has, however, changed the opportunities for animal assisted therapy.

According to Saul: “The pandemic has impacted us more than any other time I can remember [with the closure of most of the places we go to], but during the pandemic we were able to provide support to the doctors and the nurses and the [hospital] staff. We just had to restructure our visits. We were outside versus inside, we practice social distancing, good hand hygiene. It was just so needed because the doctors and nurses were certainly stressed.”

When asked about the risk of zoonotic COVID-19 transmission, Saul said: “The virus does not live on the pet’s fur, so it cannot be transmitted from a pet to a human.”

CAREing Paws now also offers online R.E.A.D. appointments, which can be scheduled through their website.

Very little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of R.E.A.D. programs in promoting children’s literacy.

According to a 2016 review of the literature base published in the academic journal, PLOS ONE: “To date there exist no systematic reviews on the effects of [human-animal interactions] in educational settings specifically focusing on the perceived benefits to children of reading to dogs. With rising popularity and implementation of these programmes [sic] in schools, it is essential that the evidence base exploring the pedagogic value of these initiatives is well documented.”

While the scientific community has yet to seriously study the effectiveness of Reading Education Assistance Dogs, R.E.A.D. programs have become a major part of animal therapy organizations throughout the nation.

What is clear from scientific research is that therapy dogs do generally reduce people’s stress levels, and from this it may be reasonable to hypothesize that this could be beneficial to students struggling with anxiety over their reading performance.

According to Saul: “It makes the child feel confident to be able to read aloud to a dog, because the dog will not make fun of them, will not laugh at them. It’s a very safe and comfortable environment they can feel completely comfortable just reading to the dog.”

The ability of therapy dogs and other therapy animals to help reduce stress and promote calm and relaxation could also be beneficial to helping people recover from the psychological anguish caused by prejudice.

According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) by National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people face significantly more psychological distress than the general population. This is particularly true of younger transgender people.

The survey authors note: “while all age groups of USTS respondents reported substantially more distress than their counterparts in the U.S. population, younger survey respondents were more likely to report current serious psychological distress. Fifty-three percent (53%) of USTS respondents aged 18 to 25 reported experiencing current serious psychological distress.”

The psychological distress transgender people face as a result of transphobia translates into a higher rate of suicidal ideation: “nearly half (48%) of all respondents reported that they had seriously thought about killing themselves in the past twelve months, compared to 4% of the U.S. general population.”

Such psychological distress is sadly only more prevalent for transgender people of color, who face both transphobia and racism.

Perhaps we should request therapy dog teams at LGBTQ community centers.

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