As animal-assisted therapy catches on locally, children and adults with special needs and senior citizens are interacting with dogs, horses and even dolphins to improve mental and physical wellbeing.
Lighthouse School special needs teacher Meisha Chatrie said she is a believer in animal-assisted therapy, especially after taking students for sessions at a dolphin park.
“For the dolphin therapy at Dolphin Discovery, the kids were very excited. … [A lot of the children at Lighthouse] are autistic, so when they are not in a classroom, it’s hard for them to get engaged and socialized, and when they get to the park, they are taking a lot,” said Ms. Chatrie.
Autism, which is present from early childhood, is characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people.
“They would start talking to one of the dolphins named Luna, and they’ll use words that they won’t normally use …. The communication is amazing to see because they are not talking to us on a regular basis,” she said.
Local therapeutic horsemanship trainer Shanna Pandohie believes horses have the power to heal.
“We sometimes see benefits immediately,” Ms. Pandohie said. “We’ve seen children who were unable to be still, sit up on a horse and immediately become calm.”
After getting her Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International certification, Ms. Pandohie opened Cayman’s first therapeutic horsemanship center, Cayman Cowboy Town Stables, in Lower Valley, in 2011. Since then, she has worked with 27 local clients with disabilities ranging from autism, depression, Down’s syndrome, Parkinson’s and cerebral palsy.
“People with special needs in the Cayman Islands need opportunities to participate in engaging activities outside of the home or school. Essential opportunities must be made available, regardless of the socioeconomic status of families who may benefit,” she said.
Lighthouse students have also used equine therapy.
Ms. Chatrie said, “The horses was another amazing experience – they’re huge, that was a bit scary for them at first. When we got there, they were very scared, but for the most part, as weeks went by, they became more comfortable with the horses.”
Ms. Pandohie said riding exercises are good for the spirit as well as the body. “Like many sports, horseback riding provides both challenges and rewards. The end result is that participants are encouraged to expand the limits of their abilities in an environment that promotes success,” she said.
One rider, 21-year-old Caitlin Hatch, has been undergoing equine therapy for the past two years. She suffers from cri du chat syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes an array of physical and mental impairments.
“Her happiness level and quality of life has improved because she has someplace to go and something to do,” said her mother, Penny Hatch. “She has been riding for about two years and now she can do a lot of things that nobody thought she could do.”
She added that Caitlin, who is frail and has little body strength, is now picking up the saddle and putting it on the horse herself. “She never had self confidence before, but now she leads the horse around. She’s very confident out there,” she said.
“There’s not much here for the special needs adults community, so the horse therapy actually gives them a good venue to go to where they can really enjoy an activity that’s healthy and gives them exercise,” she added.
Under the Healing Paws program, dogs appear to be living up to their reputation as man’s best friend.
“It’s a pet therapy program and we use it for various different ways of helping. At the Pines, it’s a form of support for them and it kind of brings them some peace and happiness and companionship,” said founder of Healing Paws, Carol Miller-Johnson.
Canine friends Murphy and Hope visit the Pines Retirement Home, the Lighthouse School, and the Sunrise Adult Centre.
Ms. Miller-Johnson said. “The instructor shows them how to handle the dogs. Some of them are afraid of dogs or animals, so it can be a good way to conquer fear.”
Shellian Bush, who organizes outings for residents at the Pines, said, “The dogs get one-on-one with the residents and they spend time with the dogs from the Humane Society. They look forward to it. The residents will throw the stuffed animals for the dogs.”
“It is also physical exercise because the dog is back and forth, and [the residents’] spirits seem lifted. It mentally stimulates them.
“The dog knows each resident’s room, so they’ve bonded,” she added.