Learn more about Ann R. Howie on her website Human-Animal Solutions https://www.humananimalsolutions.com/about/.
What made you become interested in exploring the therapeutic possibilities of animals in your practice?
I read a newspaper article about how dogs were being worked with in the physical and occupational therapy of patients in an in-patient rehabilitation hospital. I grew up with animals, so my heart responded positively and I started to volunteer with that program with one of my dogs. I saw how those patients responded (not only to my dog but also to other therapy dogs), so I talked with my supervisor about bringing a therapy dog into the psychiatric hospital where I worked. My supervisor responded positively, and the first patient I worked with made truly miraculous changes. I was hooked.
Why do animals, or certain animals at least, make good emotional support companions for people? Are there particular animals or species you believe make better ESAs than others?
I believe that non-human animals are as individual as human animals. As a result, we all have varied interests and needs. I don’t know why some animals have strengths that allow them to be especially helpful to humans, and I also don’t know why some humans make brilliant surgeons and others make brilliant kindergarten teachers (but rarely are those two strengths found in one individual). Dr. Clive Wynne’s book, Dog is Love, explores dogs’ capacity for loving humans far better than I can.
That being said, humans have basic needs to be understood, to love, and to be loved. Domesticated animals depend on us for care, and they don’t talk back in human language (even though they communicate well when we know how to listen). Those can be appealing qualities for humans, and those qualities can be interpreted as providing emotional support. Further, with their lack of human language, humans often tune in to animals in a way that I call spiritual. With openness comes vulnerability and with vulnerability can come emotional intimacy.
Expanding on that, how do emotional support animals help people with mental and emotional disabilities?
Emotional support animals do their work simply by their presence. The human is no longer alone. Emotional support animals are not trained as service animals to do specific tasks for the benefit of their person with a disability. Neither are emotional support animals therapy animals.
Without betraying any confidentiality, of course, could you cite a couple of examples or share a couple of stories of people you’ve worked with who’ve found benefits and made what you’d call improvements in their ability to live fuller lives with their disability from getting an emotional support animal?
I have worked primarily with therapy animals, not emotional support animals or service animals. As a result, what I see is in the therapy session, not at home where an emotional support animal does his/her work.
How do you advise your patients to speak about their emotional support animal with others, be that family and friends or people they travel or live with? Do you have any advice for how people can help make others around them more comfortable and accepting and less prone to hassles, ridicule or embarrassment for living and traveling with an emotional support animal?
In my experience, most people who live with an emotional support animal have friends/family who are already highly familiar with that person’s need for an emotional support animal. Regarding travel, only airlines have regulations allowing ESAs to travel with their person, and airlines have specific questions and documentation they can ask for.
It is impossible to completely avoid hassles, ridicule, or embarrassment when traveling with an animal, whether that animal is a show dog going to Westminster or a service dog or a pet going into a pet supply store. Humans are capable of great cruelty and ignorance, and sometimes a person with an animal becomes a target for displaced aggression from members of the public.