Animal Assisted Therapy incorporates the use of animals, within a therapy session, to achieve a specific goal. Over the years, a building body of research has investigated the positive impact that the human-animal bond can have on both adults and children. As animals are non-judgemental and provide an unconditional love, they assist in increasing the engagement and rapport between therapist and client. Research has also shown that having animals incorporated within the therapeutic process can assist to reduce anxiety, increase relaxation, increase social interaction, increase communication within sessions, as well as act as an intrinsic motivator to engage with the animal assisted intervention.
It has been suggested that communication between an animal (particularly dogs) and a client with social difficulties is easier than communication with other people. The reason for this is that dogs, unlike people, communicate through body language alone and not a unique and often confusing mix of verbal, subtle facial and body cues, and underlying social rules. Animals also have the unique ability to provide immediate feedback regarding a person’s mood, behaviour and method of communication. For example, for a child that is making a large amount of noise and movement, the dog might shy away from this and may show a level of discomfort, however, once the child calms down, the dog then may proceed to show affection once again. Alternatively, a high energy client might find it difficult to have a calm and quiet interaction with a high energy dog, until they themselves are calm which can then encourage the dog to calm also.
Because of the many positive effects that animals can have, particularly dogs, they are being incorporated into many health professions all over the world. These include Psychology, counselling, Occupational Therapy, Physiotherapy and even in school classrooms. Many people ask “What does the dog actually do” which can be a tricky question to answer, as this is different depending on the dogs abilities as well as their handlers abilities, and of course the client’s presentation and therapy goals. However, an example of a therapy dog being used within an Occupational Therapy session with a child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder could be including the dog in pretend play shopping, asking the dog to choose what he would like to purchase by tapping the item with his nose. While it may seem simple and like more of a gimmick, an intervention such as this has the potential to engage an otherwise totally resistant or non-verbal child in a way that they have never engaged in a therapeutic intervention before. An common animal assisted intervention employed by Psychologists is ‘trick training’ with the dog as a version of a skills mastery intervention, designed to build self esteem and confidence. This intervention also allows the Psychologists to observe the client’s ability to follow instructions and rely on their short-term memory. Throughout this intervention we may also observe a low frustration tolerance, which can then be worked through and results achieved in real time with feedback from the dog. That is, the client may become frustrated when they are unable to get the dog to perform the tricks, however with guidance they can regulate that frustration and try again until they are successful. This can be very rewarding for clients of all ages.
Here at Therapy Dogs Australia, our mission is to provide a comprehensive training program for budding animal assisted therapists and their canine companions. Our week long course is designed to provide the training that both you and your dog need, to ensure that you have the tools required to introduce animal assisted therapy in to your workplace in a manner which is safe and ethical for the clients and the dogs. We are confident that upon graduation of our course, you will feel prepared and excited to get started as a human-canine therapy team!