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Amy McCullough

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National Director, Humane Research & Therapy

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of animal-assisted therapy, and American Humane Association’s involvement in the field?

Animals and people have been working side-by-side since before the dawn of civilization. There are cave drawings of the earliest humans and animals together, and we know that in ancient Egypt people “brought” their pets with them into the afterlife. Actual reported cases of what we would recognize today as animal-assisted therapy start showing up in the 1700s, where dogs were used to assist patients undergoing mental treatment. And the birth of the modern practice was in 1969, when psychiatrist Boris Levinson began incorporating his dog, Jingles, into his child therapy sessions. Since then animal-assisted therapy has really burgeoned as a field, to where now there are scores of local and national groups offering one form of this service or another.

American Humane Association’s focus on animal-assisted therapy dates back to 1945 when we promoted therapy dogs helping World War II veterans. Today we continue that legacy by providing animal-assisted therapy services to the health care, child welfare, education and military fields. In fact we’re hosting a celebration on November 11 – Veterans Day – to honor our handler-animal volunteers. They and their therapy animals impact some 125,000 lives a year as the core participants in one of the largest animal-assisted therapy programs in the country.

Aside from the sheer numbers of people you serve, what would you say is the unique role of American Humane Association in the animal-assisted therapy field?

American Humane Association brings two critical contributions to this burgeoning field: First, ensuring respect for the animal, and second, building a body of sound science examining the therapeutic value of the practice. We can fill these roles because they fit right into our 134-year history of creating evidence-based solutions to challenges facing children and animals, our unique role in establishing the nexus between child well-being and animal well-being issues, and our tradition of conducting and supporting both basic and applied research.

Why are these issues of research and animal focus so important?

Frankly, as the field grows, we think those two issues are the most likely to get left behind. For instance, it’s very easy now to go online and buy a “therapy animal” vest. But doing that without thinking about what’s best for the animal can have negative consequences for both the human in need of help and for the therapy animal. Our approach is to train and assess the human handler to ensure that they act as an advocate for their therapy animal. That helps to ensure a safe, effective and mutually beneficial interaction. In addition, we want to make sure that the claims by some of what animal-assisted therapy can provide are backed up by the science. The anecdotal evidence and limited research to date has provided us with insights of how animals can benefit human health, but there’s still a lot to be learned in this area.

Are all people – or all animals – suited for this type of therapy?

Absolutely not. Some people are simply uncomfortable around animals. Some animals are uncomfortable around people. We ask a lot of these therapy animals by placing them in complex situations with different sights, smells and sounds and not every animal is appropriate for or may enjoy therapy work. Our guiding principle is that all people have the right not to participate as clients, and all animals have the right not to participate as therapy animals.

What would you say is your most memorable moment in this field?

American Humane Association manages animal-assisted therapy programs across the gamut of people, conditions and settings. We work with children, adolescents, adults and the elderly. We reach people in schools, libraries, homeless shelters, critical care facilities, hospitals, child welfare agencies, correctional facilities, mental health centers and rehabilitation centers. We work with children with autism, veterans suffering from PTSD, elders with Alzheimer’s disease, people with traumatic brain injuries and those with terminal illness. Yet in all that, there’s still one case that stands out.

A few years ago I received an urgent call from a local hospice for a patient who had no family but had loved dogs all her life. As my therapy dog, Bailey, and I entered her room, we could see the patient hooked up to machines to monitor her heart rate and breathing. She appeared to be asleep but when we approached, she opened her eyes and the hospice worker softly introduced Bailey and me. I had Bailey sit in a chair next to the bed so the patient could see her. She reached out her hand, gently stroked Bailey’s head and thanked her for coming. She then drifted back to sleep. Bailey patiently watched over this dying woman from the chair. Every so often, she would wake up and immediately remember that the dog was there and would call out, “Bailey?” I would tell her Bailey was right here. She would stay awake just long enough to make eye contact with Bailey before her strength would give out again and she would fall back into slumber. After an hour or so, Bailey and I told her goodbye and headed home. We later learned that she passed that same night. It was such an honor to be able to fulfill a kind woman’s last request by sharing my therapy dog with her.

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Q&A with Our Staff

R. Ganzert, Ph.D
President & Chief Executive Officer

Amy McCullough
National Director, Humane Research & Therapy