Animal-Assisted Therapy Extends the Therapist’s Reach

womancarryingtwodogsMany people are familiar with programs where volunteers take their pets to visit patients in hospitals or nursing homes to improve patients’ quality of life by providing an activity that is non-medical in focus (animal-assisted activities). In the U.S., animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities are most often done with dogs, cats, and rabbits.  These small domesticated species are easy to transport and are relatively easy to train.  But training is not all that is needed.  Therapy animals must have an affinity for people and must want to do the job.  To avoid overly stressing an animal (and thus being inhumane), therapy animals must be screened for their willingness to take on this job.  In addition, therapy animal handlers must constantly watch for signs of stress in their animals and protect their animals from emotional and physical harm.
I was walking down the hospital hallway to get to the rehabilitation unit.  My therapy dog, Troi, and I were scheduled to assist giving physical therapy to patients.  We saw a therapist wheeling a patient toward us, both of their faces looked stormy. However, the patient’s face transformed into a bright smile when she saw my dog, and she immediately leaned forward and stretched out her arms to pet her.  I looked up at the therapist to make sure it was all right, and I saw a stunned look on her face.  She nodded, silently giving us permission to interact.  The patient chatted cheerfully and at length, all the while leaning forward to pet and talk to Troi.
At the end of our shift in the hospital that day I sought out that therapist, hoping to find out what had happened. There were clearly strong emotions involved.  She told me that before we arrived, the patient refused to do her physical therapy.   Recovering from a stroke, she did not have a good sense of balance, frightened to do what the therapist was asking her to do: lean forward.  Yet when she saw Troi, without hesitation she leaned forward to pet her.  And she continued to lean forward for nearly 15 minutes without fear or anxiety – all because she was doing what came naturally when she saw a dog.  It felt unnatural and frightening to lean forward to grasp a piece of equipment, but not to lean forward to pet a dog.  So the patient got her needed therapy session after all!
That true story is an example of how animal-assisted therapy can extend a therapist’s reach with patients.  Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is when a therapist (physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, etc.) incorporates a trained and screened animal into a patient’s treatment plan to help that patient reach his/her therapy goals (to be a candidate for AAT, the patient must like animals and be free of fears about or allergies to the therapy animal). The animal is often a motivator.  For example, patients can be motivated to take a therapy dog for a walk around the unit, stretch out an arm to brush a therapy cat, or struggle to make affected fingers work to unbuckle a therapy dog’s collar.  Therapists engage creativity to find ways of working with animals to meet treatment goals.  Animal-assisted therapy may allow natural life into the unnatural environment of a hospital or a nursing home.
Many people are familiar with programs where volunteers take their pets to visit patients in hospitals or nursing homes to improve patients’ quality of life by providing an activity that is non-medical in focus (animal-assisted activities). In the U.S., animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities are most often done with dogs, cats, and rabbits.  These small domesticated species are easy to transport and are relatively easy to train.  But training is not all that is needed.  Therapy animals must have an affinity for people and must want to do the job.  To avoid overly stressing an animal (and thus being inhumane), therapy animals must be screened for their willingness to take on this job.  In addition, therapy animal handlers must constantly watch for signs of stress in their animals and protect their animals from emotional and physical harm.
It is not only small animals that work in animal-assisted therapy.  Horses and other farm animals can also be therapy animals!  People generally go to such large animals, working with mental health therapists, including residential treatment programs for at-risk youth.  Clients can gain confidence when they learn to lead a 1,000-lb. horse across the paddock without using a halter or rope.  Clients can learn to calm their inner anxiety when picking out a horse’s hoof since a horse who senses anxiety in the person working with him is likely to refuse to raise his foot.  Force doesn’t work in this situation, so clients who are accustomed to forcing their will upon others learn how to work cooperatively with the horse.
Maybe you’ve heard about popular literacy programs where children read to dogs in libraries, book stores, or at school.  This is a form of animal-assisted education, where trained and screened animals are integrated into a child’s learning.  In addition to improving reading skills, children can learn math as they calculate how to feed a dog three portions of food to total one cup or learn about hygiene, anatomy, and following instructions by bathing a dog.
Therapists and educators are asked to help their patients and students achieve goals, and it is up to them to devise effective ways of meeting goals for every client.  For people who like animals, working with an animal in animal-assisted therapy sometimes makes the difference between meeting goals, mediocre performance, or dropping out.  Cheers to the therapists and educators who find creative ways to help their clients, and cheers to the handlers who make sure their animals are having as good a time as the clients who are interacting with them!
For more information about animal-assisted therapy, contact Ann Howie at 360-493-2586 or .  For more information about the visiting-animal program at Providence St. Peter Hospital, contact Danni Sabia at 360-493-7629 or

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