The Furry Therapists

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Animal assisted therapy helps ‘hidden youths’ step back into society.

Reporters: Fangdong Bai, Jane Leung, Sam Kwong

Editors: Jade Li, Kristy Tong

Socially withdrawn youth, also known as “hidden youth”, are young people who spend extended periods of time refusing to leave their homes or even their bedrooms. They shy away from school, from work and shun social interaction. The phenomenon was first observed in Japan among males in their early 20s, who are known as ‘Hikikomori’. In Hong Kong, one researcher has suggested the prevalence of youth social withdrawal is around 1.9 percent.

Some social workers have found that animal-assisted therapy is an effective way of bringing these youngsters out of their shells. Animal assisted therapy uses a combination of animal-human interactions and mainstream therapies to help socially withdrawn youth to relax and eventually step back into society.

Therapy animals – usually dogs and cats – seem to have a relaxing effect on people. But for the therapy to work, social workers and other humans play an important role. The social worker needs to understand the youth to gain his or her trust in order to introduce them to the therapy and the animal. The animal handler needs to have a good understanding of the temperament and history of the animal in order to make an appropriate match to maximize the effectiveness of the therapy and to protect the animal.

Pets used as therapy animals should be calm during interactions with people, be sterilized, and be accustomed to being around different people. Not only must the animals be trained before they can enter the service, but their owners also have to learn how to train their animals.

There are a number of associations supporting animal assisted therapy. The Hong Kong Animal Assisted Therapy Association focuses on promoting animal assisted therapy and offers animal assisted therapy to those who have relevant needs. Doctor Pet also promotes animal assisted therapy in Hong Kong.

However, despite their track record for helping hidden youths, therapy animals are not recognized in the way guide dogs for the blind are. Public transport is a big problem for them. The therapy animals’ handlers cannot take bus with their animals and taxi drivers sometimes refuse to take them. Animal assisted therapy is still not widely known and understood among the general public.