SEATTLE, Washington — Around the world, animal-assisted therapy stimulates physical, mental and emotional rehabilitation. Studies show that licensed therapy animals such as dogs and horses have helped people overcome a wide range of medical issues and disabilities. For patients in the developing country of Ecuador, animal-assisted therapy can also serve as a stepping stone from poverty to financial independence. Here are two kinds of animals making a difference through Ecuador’s animal-assisted therapy.
Hippotherapy, or equine-assisted therapy, employs horseback riding as a therapeutic activity. Horseback riding helps patients improve balance, coordination orientation and rhythm. The slow, steady movement prepares patients with physical disabilities for other therapeutic tasks. In addition, hippotherapy includes the psychological benefits of fresh air and exercise.
Hippotherapy also encourages the development of visual-motor skills. One common exercise in hippotherapy involves steering the reins left and right to find hidden puzzle pieces along a trail. Hugging or petting the horse can also help patients who struggle with sensory defensiveness or full-body contact sensitivities.
There are also several kinds of canotherapy or dog-assisted therapy. Service dogs reach objects, open doors and help turn on lights. They are especially helpful for patients who are blind, hearing-impaired or experiencing low mobility. Visiting dogs may also provide a comforting presence in nursing homes and pediatric units.
Another kind of canotherapy affords patients the opportunity to raise their own canine companion. Typical responsibilities for the patient include feeding, watering, brushing and training their dogs. The goal is to foster a stable and nurturing mindset in patients suffering from emotional disorders.
Effects of Ecuador’s Animal-Assisted Therapy
The organization Love Volunteers (LV) uses hippotherapy as part of its Special Needs Program in Quito, Ecuador. The program aims to better the lives of the nation’s most marginalized citizens through rigorous animal-assisted therapy sessions. It relies heavily on volunteer workers who aid in therapy sessions and care for the animals.
Marilyn, a volunteer at the LV Special Needs Program in Quito, reflected on her work with young patients. “These children may have more severe medical complications and much fewer resources, but they’re not unlike any other kid anywhere in the world: they just want to play.”
Similarly, the Santo Domingo Detention Center in Santo Domingo, Ecuador has initiated efforts to provide canotherapy for inmates. Officials at the prison hope that the inmates will forge close ties with their pets and develop the tools to reintegrate into society. As one inmate reports, “To be loved is something wonderful. It’s a pure feeling. To feed it [the dog], to be aware of its needs, if it has water, if it’s sad…that creates a bond with an animal like you would have with a family member.”
Ultimately, Ecuador’s animal-assisted therapy can help patients cope with or overcome the disabilities that have kept them out of work. For this reason, it has proven essential to stabilizing the livelihoods of Ecuadorian people in poverty. As LV and peer organizations have found, the road to recovery might just start with a pawprint.
– Katie Painter