Positive effect on people

Berlin (dpa) - It's not always easy getting through to someone suffering from depression, not even for an experienced psychotherapist. But imagine how a patient opens up at the sight of a small dog frolicking at their feet during the therapy session, its big black eyes pleading, "Pet me!"

But it's not only dogs being used as "co-therapists" these days: even horses, guinea pigs, turtles and other animals are cheering people up. "Major successes can be achieved with animal-assisted therapies (AATs), particularly in treating anxiety disorders and depression," says Dr. Arno Deister, head of the Centre for Psychosocial Medicine at Germany's Itzehoe Hospital president of the German Association for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics (DGPPN). "Depressives, for example, sometimes have trouble establishing contact with their therapist and building trust."

An animal can then be effective in breaking the ice, Deister says - assuming, that is, that both patient and therapist have had positive experiences with the species in the past. The animal acts as an intermediary between the two. A key factor in animals' positive effect on people could be that they are not judgmental. "They accept people with all their weaknesses and strengths," Deister said.

Animals aren't only used in therapies but also in what are known as animal-assisted activities (AAAs), which are aimed more broadly at enhancing quality of life through motivation, education or recreation. The assistants of Cornelia Drees, a trained AAA specialist in the German state of Lower Saxony, like to uses dogs, goats, hens, a rooster, rabbits, sheep, guinea pigs and donkeys.

When Drees visits homes for the aged, kindergartens, schools and facilities for the disabled, she invites her audience to form a circle and puts some animals - guinea pigs or rabbits, for example - in the centre. She introduces each animal by name, says where it comes from, what it likes and what it doesn't, all the while observing who's drawn to which animal - and vice versa. Then she passes out assignments. "It could be to make a guinea pig happy by petting it, for instance," Drees explained.

If the petter sees the animal is pleased, he or she could get a boost in self-confidence. It's important that the animal's well-being be taken into account. "Only calm and happy animals can have a positive effect on people," Drees said.