People and Animals: A Look at Animal-Assisted Therapy


If you have visited in nursing homes, group care shelters, foster homes or hospitals you may have been surprised to see pets. Dogs, cats, even miniature horses are making appearances in care settings where companion animals such as seeing-eye dogs used to be the only exceptions to a "no animals allowed" policy. A growing number of facilities and professional health care organizations are beginning to understand the importance of using pets as therapy.

Pet owners have always known their pets offer comfort, companionship, stress relief, and a listening ear at the end of the day. Now professional health care practices are using animal-assisted therapy as an important part of their long-term care plans in many different situations. Pet therapy has been studied for more than 40 years . Animal-assisted therapy began when people started bringing pets to visit in nursing homes. As health care professionals began to notice the benefits interacting with visiting pets provided, therapists began incorporating assisted pet-therapy into their treatment plans.

Pet therapy, animal-assisted therapy, assisted animal intervention, and animal-assisted activities are at times used interchangeably to describe any interaction between animals and people in health care facilities, hospitals, schools, assisted care settings, or nursing homes. As use of animals to assist in meeting therapy goals or provide motivation, encouragement, and interaction within group settings becomes more frequent, there has been an effort to define terms used for the various types of animal interactions. Knowing the difference in terms when animals are used within health care or community situations will aid individuals in deciding how and where to get involved if becoming part of an animal-assisted programis of interest. Here is a brief look at definitions.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)  - Animal-assisted therapy is often used to describe any actions/interactions or visits by animals in places such as nursing homes, schools, or functions. However, according to the Delta Society, which is working to define consistent terms used by all facilities allowing animal visits, animal-assisted therapy is done with an animal-handler team under the observation and direction of a professional who has set specific goals for the session. Animal-assisted therapy is professionally directed with specific therapy outcomes, times, and goals. Interaction results and observations are documented as part of the treatment record. The health provider then evaluates each session and includes the finding in ongoing care plans.

Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) – Animal-assisted activities are those interactions provided by volunteers, or paraprofessionals with animals that have met the criteria for pet therapy. The key features of Animal-Assisted Activities, according to the Delta Society,  are that there are no specific treatment goals set for each session, volunteers are not required to take documented notes, and visits are spontaneous and as long or as brief as needed. Animal-assisted activity (pet therapy) takes place when animals visit, undirected interaction allowing people to relax occurs, and both animals and people benefit.

Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) – Another term used to define all animal-assisted therapy is animal-assisted interventions. Animal interventions include programs that may be motivational, educational, or therapeutic, such as the assisted dog reading programs or equine-assisted therapy programs. Animal-assisted intervention is the focus of various research programs, particularly animal interventions with autistic children .

Interacting with animals often has a therapeutic effect on children with special needs. Children and adults alike find the animals accepting, loving, non-judgmental, good listeners, and comforting during stressful illnesses, hospitalizations, or treatments. Animal therapy provides both emotional and physical benefits. The physical act of touching, petting, and brushing a pet has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce stress. The unconditional love from an animal has also been effective in relieving depression and increasing awareness, and it offers individuals who have difficulty communicating to reach outside themselves in a positive way. Animal-assisted therapy or even simply a visiting dog as part of an animal-assisted activity program offers multiple benefits to seniors in senior centers, nursing homes, or assisted living centers just as they do to children.

Animal-assisted therapy began simply as volunteers began to take their personal pets to nursing homes or facilities where people needed an outside interest. Since then it has expanded to include many variations; some of the programs may already be familiar. Dogs are the most popular animals used in pet therapy but any animal has the potential to bring a smile or enjoyment to others, so future programs may provide a wider variety of animals being used for therapy or animal-assisted activities. Within the school setting, animal-assisted therapy often makes use of dogs as co-therapists. Children will often open up to sharing with a dog present, or sometimes will talk to the dog rather than a counselor when asked uncomfortable questions. In some schools and communities, dogs are being used in animal-assisted reading programs. Many local assisted-therapy groups, volunteers, and other organizations sometimes include animal-assisted reading as part of their outreach. Intermountain Therapy Animals is a therapy animal organization that launched its animal-assisted reading program, Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.), in 1999. R.E.A.D. was the first program of its kind to build a comprehensive literacy program based on the concept of reading to dogs! They can assist in finding local R.E.A.D. partners or workshops or helping you start a R.E.A.D. program in your community. Equine Therapy (horses) is hugely effective with special needs children and troubled teens. Equine therapy began in the 1950s when a young woman rehabilitated herself from a wheelchair to horseback activities. Since then, in addition to the therapeutic benefits horse therapy provides to troubled teens, equine therapies have also been used successfully to help improve muscle control, hand-eye coordination, strength, and balance to many physically-challenged individuals. Even individuals unable to go to a stable or ranch to ride are benefiting from equine therapy. Miniature Horses are visiting nursing homes and hospitals bringing joy to bedridden individuals and others who cannot leave the facility. Miniature horses are not the only animals besides dogs used for animal-assisted therapy. Cats and kittens make great assisted-therapy animals for children with cerebral palsy or individuals who need the quieter companionship that a cat or kitten offers. In Europe, dolphins are being used in assisted animal therapy to treat individuals with neurological disorders and other conditions such as depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, cerebral palsy, and infantile autism syndrome. More animal-assisted therapy options are sure to become available as research studies confirm the benefits this therapy provides.  

According to the American Humane Association™ - the use of animal-assisted activities (AAA) are beneficial in providing motivational, recreational, and educational opportunities that enhance the quality of life for many individuals. Many local humane associations sponsor animal-assisted activities as a means of educating groups in responsible pet ownership and to increase involvement in local shelters and animal rescue programs. No one breed of dog makes the ideal therapy dog. Dogs will exhibit several positive qualities and traits needed to be a therapy dog. Attitude and a love of people are more important than breed or size for a therapy animal. Some qualities that make animals therapeutic include companionship and the desire to be around people. Animals are naturally warm and fuzzy, encouraging us to stroke and pet them. A therapy pet must also be trusting of people and not timid or fearful. Their trusting nature is especially therapeutic to individuals with emotional or psychological problems.

For those interested in getting involved in animal-assisted therapy, others involved in such programs can provide advice. Observing animal-assisted teams in action and asking how to get involved may be a great first step. Most facilities that use animal-assisted therapy require both handlers and pets to be registered or certified showing that they have passed certain requirements. There are organizations that only register dogs and their handlers. Other organizations will work with any type of pet as long as they pass certain requirements showing they will be safe and beneficial to use as part of animal-assisted therapy programs.

Many facilities require you and your dog to be registered or certified as an assisted-therapy animal team. If you would like to start taking your pet to a local facility, ask if it uses an animal-assisted therapy program and how you can become involved. If no such program is in place, ask about starting one. Contact one of the following organizations to find out the requirements for qualifying as an animal-assisted therapy team.

Delta Society ® - Delta Society registers dogs and other animals as pet-partner teams . This organization has animal-assisted teams throughout the nation. They are able to help you find local groups and organizations and help you get involved. Delta Society registers dogs and other pets that show the qualities needed to be good therapy pets.

Therapy Dogs Inc. provides training to dogs and their owners for becoming a registered therapy dog team. Therapy Dogs Inc. highly recommends you begin by observing an animal-assisted team at work in the facility you wish to work in before proceeding with the test to qualify you and your animal. Observing an active team will give you a chance to see what is involved.

Therapy Dogs International has therapy dogs registered in all 50 states and Canada. By the year 2010, approximately 24,000 dog/handler teams have been registered. As with the other training organizations, Therapy Dogs International requires both handlers and dogs to be tested and evaluated by certified instructors. The dog must be at least one year old and pass temperament evaluations involving how it reacts around equipment such as carts, wheelchairs, and walkers. All animals involved in animal-assisted therapy must also be certified by a vet as being in good health and current on all vaccinations.

More health care professionals are finding ways to combine animal-assisted therapy into their practices. However, you do not need any professional experience or background in health or social work to become involved. Animal-assisted therapy began with lay people volunteering their time to bring pets to visit others and that remains a large part of the animal-assisted programs today. Those who love working with animals and people may find that animal-assisted therapy provides a way to bring stress relief, joy, and health benefits to individuals who otherwise would not experience the benefits animals provide.