Assisted Therapy is used
For the most part dogs and other animals love their
caretakers unconditionally. They are glad when we come home, they offer love and companionship when we are sad,
and they display a devotion unparalleled to any other. This is true of horses, dogs and many animals involved in
Therapists are using AAT with great success to enhance the
lives of those assisted by pet therapy. There are many ways pets are used to help patients, and in many
settings, including in hospital rehab programs, through physical therapy programs, in nursing homes where they
most often serve as companions and even in mental health facilities.
Animal therapists use animals in various ways to help
patients heal. Some therapists use animals to assist patients with mobility, balance and strength. AAT is not
the same as a visitation program, though the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Typically, visitation
is a process whereby a pet owner visits patients accompanied by their pet. The primary reason a care provider
would do this is to promote greater socialization between the patient and caregiver.
When used as AAT, a therapist will use animals in specific,
directed treatment sessions with an objective and goal in mind. Animals can be used many ways, including as a
modality or tool to improve a patient’s outcome.
Here are just a few ways therapists use animals as a modality
or treatment tool:
Ø Pets may help improve a patient’s
Ø Often equine programs involve skills
training for patients who need to regain balance or self-confidence.
Ø Pets can help patients regain
strength and often endurance.
Ø Here again, equine programs or dogs
can offer patients support in this area.
Ø Pets, especially dogs, can assist
with mobility problems and balance when acting as “guide” dogs, in the case of individuals with visual
Ø Pets often reduce anxiety and stress
in the healthcare setting and improve socialization between the patient and therapist.
It is almost as if pets have a natural or magical ability to
create peace in an otherwise chaotic or misunderstood environment.
Not all animals are suitable for therapy programs. Most
therapists will have to train animals and test their temperament before using them as part of a successful
therapy session. Some dogs for example, have much milder or sound tempers than others. When horses are used as
part of animal assisted therapy programs, their temperament must also be evaluated. A trainer must be sure a
horse will not react unexpectedly in a negative manner under a stressful encounter. Such a reaction may prove
devastating for patient and pet alike!
A dog used for AAT must engage in obedience training so they
know how to react when asked to perform a specific function, or when faced with a stressful
Many trainers will also work with dogs to help them cope with
stressful situations because most dogs when first working with a patient are entering an anxiety-filled and
unusual situation. While it is important to work with an animal with a sound temperament, it is also important
an animal is trained to expect the unexpected, and offered loving support and nurturance following a session to
ensure they remain happy and ideally suited for future therapy sessions. Animals, like people, can burn
What therapists look for are dogs or other animals that react
in predictable ways in multiple settings, so they can count on their help when called on. The same is true of
horses. Some animals, including dogs or horses are used in more aggressive therapy programs than others. A cat
for example, may be used simply as a tool in acute care environments or in nursing homes as a friend or
companion to someone who is lonely. Think of how comforting it would be for someone to sit and stroke a
mild-mannered cat for hours on end. A cat purrs, warms the person they sit with and often falls asleep quite
The good news with cats is when they are bothered, they are
likely to simply jump off the lap of their owner or the person they work with, rather than react in a
frightening manner. Still, as with any animal, most pet therapists recommend full evaluation of a pet before
introducing a pet to a therapeutic-type environment.