How Important Are Dogs As Therapy?
With mental health issues and tragic celebrity suicides filling our timelines and newsfeeds recently, Elka Imports wanted to delve deeper and speak to a local community organisation who are playing a vital part in overcoming some of the issues mental illness brings. The Delta Society work with our faithful four-legged friends to overcome feelings of anxiety and depression in all kinds of social and workplace environments at a local level, breaking down stigma along the way.
The Delta Society is an exceptional organisation which is passionate about bringing happiness and a sense of calm to those who may be struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. They have many programs, one of which is bringing dogs to court where victims of crime and staff can bond with a therapy dog. This initiative has already brought about significant benefits as a happy dog brings not only a welcome distraction but is proven to calm someone who may be anxious or nervous before entering the courtroom. They also have a Paws For Pressure initiative, which brings therapy dogs into the workplace. Not only is this a great stress reliever, but it breaks down the stigma associated with mental illness and offers up a chance for businesses to start a conversation with their employees as part of their health and wellness programs in a morale-boosting environment.
We interviewed Hollee James, General Manager of The Delta Society and not only got some great insights into the organisation but cemented our beliefs that dogs are precious when it comes to mental health and general wellbeing.
Delta Society Therapy Dog Team – Genevieve Reid and Byron at the SAN Hospital, NSW.
Where was the idea for The Delta Society born?
The Delta Society was established by the late Dr Robert Kibble, a prominent veterinarian, and Dr John Cornwall, vet and former South Australian Health Minister. Both had a passion for animals and people and this combination made for a perfect synergy to go about establishing a not-for-profit organisation that focuses on both of these things.
The Delta Society began its work in August 1997, with a grant from the Animal Welfare League of Australia.
How important was the Animal Welfare grant to Delta Society at the time of start-up and do you think there needs to be more accessible funding for mental health support charities?
The grant was instrumental in setting-up Delta, but to continue the work there was a need to source additional funding. We continue to rely on the support of individuals, businesses and the facilities that utilise Delta’s services so that we can bring joy to the lives of many thousands of Australians every week.
From Delta’s perspective, we are receiving an increasing number of enquiries from mental health services around Australia, who see how visits from Delta Therapy Dog teams could benefit their clients. Increased funding would definitely help Delta to meet the growing number of requests.
The dogs as therapy movement as a whole seem to be growing in popularity and finally being recognised. How does The Delta Society educate the public and other agencies to the benefits a therapy dog can bring?
The human-animal bond has a remarkable impact on our quality of life, and the physical, social, cognitive, emotional and environmental benefits of pet therapy have been scientifically-proven. This bond and its benefits is commonly known as ‘the pet effect’.
Delta runs a number of programs, all with one mission – to promote and facilitate positive interactions between people and companion animals. Delta Society’s programs include:
- Delta Therapy Dogs – each week more than 1,000 volunteers visit hospitals and care facilities, brightening the lives of around 20,000 Australians.
- Delta Classroom Canines – improving children’s confidence, health and wellbeing by providing schools with a powerful additional learning tool to encourage the overall development of a student. The program concentrates on children that have difficulties with reading and writing, but are not part of a remedial reading program.
- Delta Dog Safe – teaches positive, proactive ways to behave around dogs, to reduce the incidence of dog bites in children.
- Delta Paws the Pressure – offers businesses, university and TAFE campuses a unique staff/student wellbeing experience. Visits from Delta Therapy Dogs reduce stress and boost staff morale.
- Dog Training the Delta Way – a nationally accredited course that trains individuals to become certified dog trainers. It is supported by the Animal Welfare League Australia, and focuses on positive, reward-based training.
Delta educates about the benefits of therapy dogs in a number of ways. Delta has a strong social media presence – https://www.facebook.com/DeltaSocietyAus/ – and we regularly post articles of interest about our Delta teams, research, the benefits of therapy dogs and the positive feedback we receive from individuals and organisations who benefit from our services. Delta is also active in the general media, and this provides us with an opportunity to spread the word about the benefits of therapy dogs to a broad audience. We also receive significant interest from industry-specific publications and this generates a lot of enquiries regarding visits to hospitals, health care and educational facilities.
The Delta Society trial in local courts is reaping great rewards and benefits to those who use the service. Which other areas do you see therapy dogs bringing benefits?
Yes, the trial of therapy dogs in local courts was a huge success, with everyone from victims of crime and witnesses, to court staff, police and lawyers reporting reduced stress levels after spending time with a Delta Therapy Dog.
As can be seen by the breadth of services already offered by Delta, therapy dogs can benefit almost any environment where an interaction between a person and dog can occur, and a positive connection can be made.
Emotional support pets seem to be growing in popularity and almost any kind of pet has been shown on social media (recently a woman had a peacock on a plane!). Can any animal become a support pet? Or are there recommended criteria?
It’s important to point out that emotional support pets have very different roles to assistance or therapy animals. To briefly summarise the different roles:
Emotional support animals: provide therapeutic benefit to someone living with depression or anxiety. They are not officially recognised in Australia. They are considered to be pets, so there is no set requirements for their role or behaviour.
Assistance dogs: (sometimes also referred to as service dogs) are working animals. They are trained specifically to help, and improve the lives of people living with disabilities. The assistance dogs that you might be most familiar with are sight and hearing guide dogs, but assistance dogs are trained for other support purposes too. Assistance dogs often begin learning the skills they will need at around 2 months old, and spend the first two years of their life training for their ultimate role.
Therapy dogs: usually work with their handler (this is mostly their owner) in a voluntary capacity to provide psychological or physiological support to others. Therapy dogs usually visit locations to spend one-on-one or group time with people who can benefit from the calm and friendly presence of a dog, the physical interaction of petting a dog, or who just need a friendly ear to listen to them.
Delta has a very strict assessment and training program. First, the dog must be deemed medically healthy. Then the dog and handler must complete an assessment. This reviews their relationship, how the dog responds to basic tasks like walking on a lead, coming when called, being patted (perhaps over-enthusiastically) by strangers, loud noises and crowds.
If they pass this assessment, the handler must then complete a one-day volunteer training session. Delta’s approach to dog handling is based on positive reinforcement, and volunteers agree to use this approach with their dog throughout their time as part of the Delta Therapy Dogs program.
For any of these roles, it is important that the animal wants to work in this way. Some animals make great pets, but are just not cut out to be support, assistance or therapy animals. In general, dogs are a common choice for these roles as they can be trained. However, other animals such as cats, birds etc can work as well. It all comes down to the connection between the animal and the individual.
Elka Imports support the work of The Delta Society by donating their range of biodegradable dog waste bags and agree that a dog can truly be a man’s best friend through the good times and the bad. Organisations such as The Delta Society can only survive with continuous donations and support. If you would like to donate, find out how you can book an event, or event become a volunteer, contact The Delta Society team below!