Overcoming Discrimination in Pet Therapy

November 26, 2014  

By: Gemma Bridges


Organizations like Pet Partners are able to give pit bulls the chance they need to thrive and excel in the helping-humans arena. Pit bulls are incredibly affectionate and receptive towards humans. They love unconditionally, and their delight upon being petted and shown attention by people is infectiously uplifting. Pit bulls make brilliant therapy dogs, bringing joy and hope to those who need it most. Many hospitals are flinging their doors wide and letting pit bulls trained as therapy dogs walk the wards. It has given a new lease of life to many dogs who would otherwise have faced an uncertain future. One such dog, Chance, was rescued by his owner, Marla, from a shelter. He had no training, and was described as having “an advanced taste for furniture.”[1] Today, with love and patient training, he and his guardian have completed a canine therapy course and are volunteering with Pet Partners, bringing sunshine and hope to the lives of the sick. With every person he helps, Chance also helps pit bulls everywhere. Unfortunately, it is not always this simple. Back in September, the story of Aladdin broke. Aladdin, a gentle, loving pit bull type dog, had completed a pet therapy training course, and adores everyone he meets. Usually, this adoration is reciprocated. He helps children learn to read on the “Wagging Tails Reading Program” at Evesham Public Library, NJ, and is a regular therapy pet at the Ronald McDonald house in Camden, NJ. Despite his impeccable record, and the great joy and aid he has brought in these and other situations, the Virtua Hospital refused to allow Aladdin to be a therapy pet at their organization, citing his breed. As Aladdin’s owner put it – “That’s discrimination. Every dog is like a person.”[2]


Breaking The Circle

Such setbacks are frustrating – but we must not allow them to derail the concept of pit bulls as therapy dogs. They simply illustrate the need to push the potential of these dogs all the harder. We need to get our gentle, loving pit bulls out into the public eye and let the general public see that they are happy, joyous, affectionate pets. The Pets as Therapy movement has experienced enormous success. Dogs can be used to sense fits for those with epilepsy, to calm those with anxiety issues, and even to help those with addiction issues. It is in this latter area that pit bulls may have found their perfect therapeutic niche. In a study undertaken in New York, substance abusers were given a Pet Therapy program, with astonishing results. “When the dogs were present”, the study report states, “56% of the participating clients seemed to interact spontaneously and ultimately revealed significant portions of their histories, especially as they related to violence, loss, self-esteem, family dynamics and consequences of drug and alcohol use”[3] – a hugely significant step. The study involved a pit bull – Alexis – whose contribution was noted by the researchers as being particularly helpful. “When Alexis…was present…a higher degree of disclosure on violence occurred, including perpetrated and witnessed violence towards animals. This would not be surprising since pit bulls are one of the breeds commonly abused and tortured in the drug community for dog fighting and guard dog purposes”. Seeing Alexis – a good, gentle, and loving pit bull – made the addicts realize that they, too, were able to reject the stereotypes forced upon them, and ‘come good’. To see a pit bull not conforming to societal expectations can be enormously therapeutic, and enable an addict to shun their former lifestyle in favor of a better, healthier, cleaner life. Pit bulls could, quite literally, save lives.

[1] Raquel Villanueva, “Pit bull therapy dog begins to visit Brighton hospital”, 9 News, June 2014

[2] Maggie Bowers, “Locals Express Outrage After Pit Bull Rejected From Therapy Program”, NBC Philadelphia, August 2014

[3] Terri Miller, Cydney Cross, Janice Underwood,“The Use Of Therapy Dogs With Adult Substance Abuse Clients”, TDI

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