Animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that can help with a range of physical, emotional and mental health challenges. In Cayman, two programmes tap into the therapeutic benefits of animals: Healing Paws and Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).
Healing Paws is a volunteer organisation that uses therapy dogs to provide comfort and support in a variety of settings, such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes.
Therapy dogs are trained to help people cope with a range of emotional issues, or can simply brighten someone’s day during visits.
“Animals have wonderful healing skills,” says Dr. Denise Osterloh, medical director
of Healing Paws. “We have seen through this programme that positive human-animal interactions have improved the physical, emotional and psychological lives of those we have served.”
Healing Paws therapy dogs and their handlers work with such groups as the Special Needs Foundation, Lighthouse School and The Pines Retirement Home.
“We have seen our therapy teams give unconditional love, boost self-esteem and relieve loneliness and boredom,” says Dr. Osterloh. “Therapy animals involved with children result in helping them learn empathy and nurturing skills.”
Therapy dogs can also improve a patient’s mindset and reduce the perception of pain.
“Often, the presence of a therapy animal improves a patient’s outlook with respect to their illness – they provide an escape from the pain they may be in by providing comfort,” added Dr. Osterloh.
Launched on a small scale in 2011, she joined Healing Paws more than four years ago, working with Tracy Stone, Fiona Graham, and dog trainer Heidi Suarez to build the programme.
“We decided to make Healing Paws more of a programme in which we could start training other people with their dogs to be able to use pet therapy as an instrument of rehabilitation and therapeutic modality in the Cayman Islands,” she says.
EQUINE-ASSISTED PSYCHOTHERAPY (EAP)
Equine-assisted psychotherapy incorporates horses into the therapeutic process.
“The therapeutic benefits of interacting with animals is well- documented but (EAP) takes
the work with the animals to a deeper level,” says Dr. Alexandra Bodden, whose clinic OnCourse Cayman offers EAP co-facilitated by Shanna Pandohie, equine specialist and owner of Cowboy Town Stables.
OnCourse Cayman offers EAP through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) model, where a mental health professional and an equine specialist work with the client in the arena.
“Whatever happens in people’s lives tends to also play out in the arena,” says Dr. Bodden.
The model involves only ground-level work, no riding, so that the horses can freely respond. Horses are keen observers, and often mirror a client’s behaviour or emotions. “This is what makes them great for therapy as they will respond to persons as they feel and perceive them, providing genuine, in-the-moment feedback,” says Dr. Bodden.
This form of therapy can be helpful for emotional or relationship difficulties, as well as those coping with trauma or addiction.
“When persons (or teams) are open to the work with the horses, they often learn a lot about themselves,” says Dr. Bodden. “It is such a novel experience that people often continue to develop insights even days or weeks after the session.”