DENTON (UNT), Texas – Thousands of people benefit from animal-assisted therapy. Scientific research has shown that patients in hospitals and in traditional therapy can experience improvements in healing, stress levels and anxiety from even brief contact with therapy animals like dogs and horses. The University of North Texas is once again preparing for their evaluation of new animal-assisted therapy teams, who will provide service in their own communities. Animal handlers and their dogs and horses travel to UNT from as far away as Oklahoma for evaluation.
The handler-animal team evaluations will take place from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 16 (Saturday) at UNT's Welch Street Complex 2, 425 S. Welch Street, Denton. Dogs and their owners will be evaluated in the morning and horses and their handlers will be tested during the afternoon.
Cynthia Chandler, professor of counseling in the College of Education and director of the Consortium for Animal-Assisted Therapy, said the potential animal handler teams have been trained to manage a number of situations typical of a therapy environment.
"The animals are evaluated on their temperament, aptitude and obedience," said Chandler. "Therapy animals need to be able to handle crowded petting, loud noises and stress while remaining sociable, friendly and confident."
Chandler said animal-assisted therapy can bring about considerable improvements in stress levels of patients.
"We've known for decades that people feel better when they pet an animal," Chandler said. "There's been in-depth research that shows that even five minutes with a therapy dog in a hospital setting can improve patient experience significantly.
"Another advantage of working with therapy animals is that they can detect stress in humans through smell and visual observation of body language," said Chandler. "Pack and herd animals like dogs and horses can pick up on how a person is feeling and signal this to a human therapist so the therapist can respond to the person's stress, while the animal itself can provide a source of comfort."
Chandler said much of the training focuses on teaching animal handlers to pay attention to a therapy animal's reactions so they'll be aware of stress and anxiety that the animal's keen senses can detect.
"When people feel stress, a therapy animal will move to the distressed person to try to calm them down. This isn't something they need to be trained to do – it's a natural instinct," Chandler said. "However, animals do differ in their desire and capacity to nurture people in need, so not all dogs and horses will qualify to be a therapy animal. A lot of our training is for the owners and handlers so they'll be more comfortable accepting the animal's reactions and pay attention to what the animal is trying to communicate."
Media may reach Chandler at 940-367-4189.