Living and Lifestyle

Paw-sitive vibes: Researchers examine how animals can help humans

Colleen Dell and Darlene Chalmers believe in the therapeutic power of the human-animal relationship.

For 10 years Dell, an addictions expert at the University of Saskatchewan, and Chalmers, a member of the social work faculty at the University of Regina, have studied how animals can assist with a variety of problems associated with their fields. They’ve used dogs to help connect with methadone patients, prison inmates and people in long-term care homes. They’ve studied how horses can help develop communication skills in people with past trauma or disabilities.

The specifics are different depending on the animal species, but the unifying principle is that people connect with animals differently than humans. For someone struggling with addictions, feeling left behind by the system, or having trouble trusting other people due to past experiences, bonding with an animal can lead to breakthroughs in other areas of life. It can also build bridges between patients and service providers.

“The animal allows that therapeutic alliance to happen,” Dell says.

At times the work has been challenging. It’s a relatively new field, and a lack of research before Dell and Chalmers began made some institutions skeptical. But through their work and the successes they’ve had they are changing perceptions.

“Convincing people is an ongoing process,” Dell says.

———

Colleen Dell is a researcher focusing on therapy animals in Saskatoon. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Matt Smith)

Dell came to Saskatoon 10 years ago to take on the role of Addictions Research Chair at the U of S. Within a few months, a colleague connected her with Chalmers, who was researching equine-assisted learning and the horse-human relationship.

Prior to pursuing her PhD, Chalmers had worked as an instructor for a riding therapy group. She had already witnessed the power horses could have in a therapy setting, but saw a lack of academic literature on the subject.

One of the first collaborations the two embarked on involved using horses to help Indigenous youth who were affected by addictions. Dell says the potential for the method was immediately obvious. Many of the youth had suffered physical and sexual abuse. This led to an aversion to touch and trouble trusting other people.

“How could we teach someone what healthy touch is?”  Dell asks.

The youth were able to forge relationships with horses without fear of being betrayed.

“I’m starting to feel comfortable next to another living being. They’re not going to take advantage of me,” Dell says.

Horses also promote awareness of self, Chalmers says. Their history as prey animals make them hyper-vigilant to their surroundings. They can sense when someone’s energy is off.

“They provide very clear indicators to us as humans when we may be doing something that is inconsistent for them,” she says.

Darlene Chalmers is a researcher focusing on therapy animals. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Matt Smith)

Chalmers and Dell have published three academic papers and given many conference presentations on equine therapy, with Chalmers also using the subject for her PhD dissertation and some other publications.

“It’s such a unique way to think about how we can provide service and support for people,” Chalmers says.

In recent years, their work has shifted more towards dogs. It began when Dell was up for sabbatical from her U of S position. Her work in the addictions field was wearing on her and she was looking for something positive she could throw herself into.

“Someone said, ‘You have to choose something you love,’ and I was like, ‘I love my dogs,’ ” Dell says.

Colleen Dell has three certified therapy dogs. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Matt Smith)

She started to look into how much research had been done in the field of therapy dogs.

“There was one study, that’s it, in the addictions field. I said, ‘Oh. That’s a gap,’ ” she says

Dell took one of her dogs, Annabelle, to be tested by St. John’s Ambulance, which provides national standards for therapy dogs. Annabelle passed, and Dell immersed herself in the world of dog therapy.

She knew from the very first time she took Annabelle out to meet people — at a Saskatoon seniors centre — that it was something she was passionate about.

“I was just taken in by how perceptive the dog was, and how good they were at what they did,” she says.

She remembers how there was a circle of chairs occupied by seniors, with one empty chair for a latecomer. Without having been trained to do so, Annabelle walked along from person to person, introducing herself. Then, when a man came and filled the last chair, Annabelle immediately went over and met him. Dell was amazed.

Annabelle ended up becoming a regular at the facility, and formed a particularly strong friendship with the man who came in late. In fact, the bond was so strong that when the man died, Dell says she had to stop bringing Annabelle.

“It was too difficult for her,”  she says.

After her initial successes, Dell was hooked. She looked for other spaces where dogs could help people improve themselves or their psychological states.

“I just took absolutely any opportunity that I could,” she says.

Another success she cites  came with an Indigenous woman who had struggled to stick with her methadone treatment. The woman’s children had been taken away by social services. This hung over the interactions she had with a counsellor at the clinic.

“Her counsellor represents a system that took away her kids. This is just not a good setup from the beginning,” Dell says.

There were no such barriers with Annabelle. The two connected immediately. When the time came for a second session, Dell was amazed by what she saw.

“She comes back the next meeting and she brings pictures of her babies. And who does she show? She shows the dog,” Dell says.

With the pictures out, the woman then showed them to Dell, then the counsellor, and the session was immediately more productive. It was a perfect demonstration of how dogs can act as a conduit for the patient-service provider relationship.

“You add the dog and there’s this level of non-judgement, this connection that happens that’s very honest,” Dell says.

Colleen Dell (left) and Darlene Chalmers (Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Matt Smith)

Although both Chalmers and Dell have seen success stories since the beginning of their research, there has always been barriers to fully implementing their techniques in some institutions.

“Let’s say you’re a policy maker, and you want concrete things you can sink your teeth into. My sense, in some instances, was this was seen as kind of fluffy,” Dell says.

At the same time, many people recognize the value in trying new things, especially in a province with addictions issues that cannot be ignored.

“We need to do things different in the additions field. Clearly we have problems,” she says.

“Most individuals we’re working with are so high-risk, so high-need, that they’re like, ‘Well let’s try the dog because nothing else is working.’ ”

On the academic side their research was accepted, but there too not everyone felt like it was a topic with a lot of substance.

“It’s this thing on the fringe, or the margins. It’s kind of a nice thing but it’s not really important,” Chalmers says.

She hopes that by continuing to show the value animals can provide in these settings and the possibilities for other areas they can move the practice further into the mainstream consciousness.

“I think it’s a lack of awareness about what it is, and what it can contribute to people’s lives,” Chalmers says.

Dell now has three dogs certified for therapy work and Chalmers is training one of her own. Neither has any plans to slow down. Both express gratitude for the other and excitement at being able to work across two academic disciplines.

“We bring different perspectives to whatever we’re doing. It’s essential,” Dell says.

The work continues, with the goal of connecting more people with more animals and, ultimately, solving more problems.

Whatever challenges appear, both Chalmers and Dell are always encouraged by the bonds they see form firsthand and the breakthroughs that follow.

“To sit back as an observer, and watch that relationship unfold, it’s a very powerful experience for me,” Chalmers says.

Source

To Top