Love is the power to see similarity in the dissimilar
T.W. Adorno

Pet therapy has become more and more popular over the years, becoming one of the most inspiring realities operating in favour of individuals at risk of social exclusion. The many initiatives implemented not only in Trentino but all over Italy definitely contributed to the rise of important considerations on how to improve life quality. Nowadays, it seems to be a unanimously acknowledged fact that the range of actual and potential beneficiaries are no longer only the so-called categories of “weak subjects”, who remain the main beneficiaries. There are in fact many other people who are in difficulty or find themselves being disadvantaged due to their condition or lack of resources, and require an intervention aimed at their social integration/inclusion.
The community of San Patrignano in Pergine has a huge deal of experience, which has allowed it to become a local reference and meeting point but also an important connection for various associations, bodies or individuals, in Italy and in Europe. Our methodology is primarily based on the relation between people and animals, thanks to new ways of interaction with animals that assume an educational role.
However, I believe we should define the basic inspiring principles that go beyond the actual action. If we share the idea that pet therapy can be identified with the action occurring between animal and man, an action that has a deep meaning at an affective, relational, communication and cognitive level, then we also agree that it is mainly an educational action aimed at increasing a person’s personality and growth. This is clearly considered as noteworthy if it is implemented within a systemic vision, where everything is much more than its parts altogether. The focus of this pedagogic approach is an opportunity to rediscover the importance of the relationship with animals and for a reflexion about the training, emotional and psychological meaning of the proposed referent. In particular, it means to consider not only the useful aspect of training, but also to look at the wide range of anthropological aspects of animals, which are essential to foster some of the most authentic features of human heritage. As zooanthropology teaches us, we must stop considering dogs as simple tools, a stimulus or a surrogate. There’s no space for the idea of an animal that cures, as Demetrio affirms, we must adopt the systemic point of view, according to which we can only consider education in terms of relational opportunities within the individual. This means, there are chances at a cognitive and a pragmatic level. We cannot talk about real education if we consider the mere acquisition of information or learning from isolated manuals .
The unique and innovative aspect of this experience lies in the focused proposal, only addressed to some individuals, to experience a personal and professional training as dog instructors specialized in pet therapy. The model offers individuals living in the community the chance to come into contact with animals (dogs in particular) for a personal benefit as well as to help others. Everyday this relational triangle involves actors sometimes as beneficiaries and others as suppliers; what doesn’t change in this relationship is their relation with animals. The “educational tension” also remains intact as it allows an approach to the Therapeutic Use of Domestic Animals, that is to say a strong planning commitment and a constant training activity in order to guarantee appropriate professional levels. The community, therefore, tries to apply and live the concepts of active pedagogy, contact with persons and place of life, meeting, training, emotions that represent the basis of the special pedagogy applied to the use of animals in re-educational or ability activities. In particular, it is possible to create the prerequisites for the approach to and knowledge of animals, since a deeper awareness of this element enriches the fields of knowledge and multiplies references with reality. Dog trainers and whole community are, therefore, a huge laboratory for pet therapy.
Everything what written this far is based on the idea that people are unique and unrepeatable beings, bearing needs but especially skills. The consequent in-depth analysis of the therapeutic use of animals as mediators derives from the firm belief that everyone has the right to be helped and supported and, even more, respected, especially in terms of heterogeneity. This allows us to think of people as real protagonists of their own lives, even if implementing this capital requires more time or energy, especially if the individuals are not used to making firm and determining decisions.
“Cani da Vita” allows the San Patrignano community in Pergine to have a wonderful feedback in terms of social visibility. But in terms of therapeutic activity, its aim is mainly to allow all those who decided to make a change in their life to take up other educational activities, with the constant support of specialists in the dog-training field, educating the dogs according to established aims, context and goals. This ensures an innovative quality leap in the intervention aimed at the individual’s social inclusion. All this is effective when we consider that the positive effect of man-animal relation derives from the ability to modify, enrich, improve and study this relation, and not from the animal’s performance. Dogs are not “used”, on the contrary they are involved in the project: the result of the project is referential, and not performing. The basic idea of the whole applied methodology is that the dog should not interact for “man’s pleasure”, but because it enjoys interaction itself.
Dog trainers who cooperate in pet therapy activities are not only people who accompany the mediating animal. Considering them in these terms would mean committing and confirming a serious insult to the relational reciprocity of all the members involved. The leading idea that drug addiction is only the symptom of discomfort, leads us to analyse this situation, implementing a method able to solve it. The proposed methodology is based on the idea that drug addicts were not able to build an adequately strong ego, independent from the influence of internal conflicts between anxiety and depression. This therapeutic attempt aims to help the individual with a stronger ego, able to support him/her through the identification with his/her educators. Pets therefore become an extra “tool” that does not replace anything or anyone, but is able to make the individual’s personal pathway even more unique.
Leaving conceptual development to the experts, and using an internal combustion engine as a metaphor, I would like to underline that when dealing with pet therapy, if motivation to animal relation can be seen as the “fuel”, it is necessary to analyse the relationship in the trainer-dog couple, since this is the irreplaceable and necessary “lubricant”. Pet therapy should therefore be seen as a complementary therapy to conventional medicine, not a substitute to it.
In assisted zooantropologic activities like the one I described, animals must be considered as partners (and not as means), able to contribute in changing participants’ relationship structure. Animals are involved in a declared partnership dimension, in which their unique features need to be protected and maintained. In the working team, the dog is therefore considered a subject, not an object and cannot be subject to anthropomorphism or categorization. These principles are supported in this laboratory every day and are included in the individual and group experiences.
As previously mentioned, this zooantropologic approach clearly brings benefits to animal assisted activities or therapies, as it analyses the man-animal relation as well as the benefits deriving from this relation. We have moved one step forward in our modern and complex society and besides paying attention to animal wellbeing; we also use the interaction between two complex living beings, humans and animals .
Offering this methodology within the community has proved to be an extremely qualifying and characterizing point of the whole rehabilitation process. Why? Simple.:we believe that an animal’s character is based on relational events that are far from the competitive, judgemental and conforming processes that are the weaknesses of people who find themselves in situations of discomfort and social exclusion. As a consequence, in the proposed training process we avoid considering dogs as simple tools, a motivation or a surrogate. In pet therapy workshops, animals must be considered as partners able to activate new contributions deriving from the relational structure. Dogs are involved in the partnership with their trainers, because to make them part of a relationship we have to protect their uniqueness and consider them subjects, not an objects. Dogs carry their diversity and specificities and must not be categorized nor subject to anthropomorphism. As I just said, the positive effect in a pet therapy workshop derives from relations and not from animal performances, so animals are not perceived and used but involved in the project. We pay special attention to avoid anthropomorphism and consideration of animals as objects, which could compromise a healthy and correct man-animal relation, the essential ethologic basis to start a pet therapy workshop.
As any other good community, San Patrignano suggests an idea of life which is different from external society: it is not a millenarianism utopia, but a less competitive and individualistic image of the world and of life on one side, and on the other a less depersonalized and conformed image compared to external society.
That is why we try to recreate the complexity of relations and the activities of society within the community, which makes our guests well aware of the fact they can test themselves in a protected world. These experiences and their elaboration allow individuals to discover their identity, forgetting the person connected to an unreal self that denies drug addiction as a problem but that at the same does not understand that drug addiction is merely a symptom. Only by discovering their identity and uniqueness, will people be able to create an aware and stronger Ego, forgetting their need to live in a fake reality. We aim at creating a new personality, since a person’s problems could even be the same at the end of the therapy, but at least their ability to face them will be different.
Animals have been brought into the community with this idea in mind. Nature is considered and experienced as a real guide and animals are perceived as a part of it. As a consequence, the vision of life is natural and not artificial. This becomes a crucial point for the whole environmental therapy, as overcoming an artificial vision of life means to face drug addiction and set the basis to ride out of it. When we say “environmental therapy”, we think about the plurality of relations and social relations, incentives and confirmations that the environment offers individuals, constantly influencing the growing and development process. At this point, other factors come into play: personal factors, thoughts, anxieties, worries and experiences, may they be personal or experienced in general towards others. In this group and institutional dimension represented by the community, dogs add a further opportunity: coordinating with others, sharing tasks and responsibilities, express communication and relational abilities, managing more and more complex situations, strengthened with the emotional relation with someone else. In this difficult and thorny process, animals are protagonists in the relation and they are considered essential members, bearer of diversities and peculiarities, like all other…human beings.
Finally, I would like to underline how it is possible to identify maternal and paternal aspects within the project too. These aspects are absorbed by individuals living with animals, responsibly nourishing and looking after them, in a reassuring dimension of safe guide and authority, observing and learning to listen. In this case, as Larocca states, it is not only a matter of listening, but of “paying attention to others”, of being prepared to try and understand the message. “Listening” is therefore intended in a wider sense: it means availability to receive, desire to accept the other, with awareness. This openness is what allows to really communicate. The tension to penetrate the other’s universe, to get enriched and live in harmony leads us to an expression of ourselves driven by words, which we perceive as the other. Human dialogue starts when self-expression comes after listening, not at a superficial level, but at the level of the Ego complexity” .
These factors often melt together, allowing to create something similar to a family, as to reconstruct that absent or lacking core. In a community, I would not underestimate this factor, that can bring out discomforts but that is essential to reconstruct a personality that needs to be created in order to grow and emancipate. The benefit does not only consist of the man-animal interaction, as it results to be natural, for man, to extend this honesty to communication with other people, with positive consequences on social relations .
We can therefore see the importance of a correct relation with nature as a whole, including human nature, that has to be respected and recognized in its educational value that must constantly be enhanced. Man needs to develop adaptability and flexibility, considering nature as a reference point. “Therapeutic animals” are full members of the community’s environmental therapy, as they are “naturally able to make man meet and listen to life”. In this way, it is possible to quit being addicted to drugs and finally face the responsibilities and difficulties of life, because, as Vincenzo Muccioli said, “a drug addict is a man that has no fear of dying, but fear of living”.

With high esteem
Marco Defranceschi