Types of Animal
Assisted Therapy programs
There are several types of AAT programs available today. The
earliest programs began in the early 1900s when animals were used as part of mental health programs to promote
calmness and relieve anxiety. Examples of the types of animals often used for therapy include dogs, horses,
cats, birds and even fish.
Consider for example, the number of times you associate a
large aquarium of fish at a doctor’s office or even more so, at a dentist’s office. Why is this?
Fish don’t purr, they don’t demonstrate “unconditional”
affection. What they do however, is promote an atmosphere that is calm and inviting. Having patients observe a
beautiful aquarium may prove very relaxing in an anxiety provoking situation (as in when a child goes to the
doctor for a shot, or a patient visits the dentist for a root canal). Even if the individual does not directly
realize the influence a pet may have on their emotional health, multiple studies show indirect benefits
associated with their very presence.
Not bad for a tiny animal that swims about in a tank all day.
Targeted AAT Programs
Most programs are targeted in their approach, working to heal
either physical, emotional or a combination of both health problems. Some animals, including horses and dogs,
are used more stringently to assist with physical problems and healing, helping patients walk better for example
or inducing more confidence in a patient attempting to regain mobility and balance.
Anyone can use any “type” of pet therapy depending on what
physical or emotional symptoms they are exhibiting. Targeted programs are those that focus on healing or
improving outcomes in patients with specific diseases or problems. For example, pet therapy used by
psychologists may focus on reducing anxiety and stress, building trust or reducing loneliness in cases where the
psychologist recommends a patient “adopt” an easy to care for pet.
Programs are found in many places:
Mental health facilities, and
There is virtually no end to where and how AAT can be used.
Scientists have long documented that humans benefit from interaction with animals especially when they
experience high levels of stress or anxiety.
Other types of AAT include “visiting therapy” or “therapy
pets” as some refer to them, which involve fewer formal programs where animals visit with people just to hang
out and help them relax. These programs typically are less vigorous and do not require stringent goal setting.
Imagine for example a cat visiting an elderly patient in a hospital, serving as a temporary companion and
friend. Stroking a pet can be very calming.
Consider a dog introduced into a children’s play facility or
educational centre. A dog with a mild-temperament may enable a teacher to engage in new and interesting
educational or teaching sessions, encouraging children to be more attentive and socially interactive while the
dog is present. The simple act of introducing a dog into a classroom may be all that is necessary to inspire
greater attention and build a sense of inclusion among children.
Scientists have long known that “playing” is a stimulus for
learning. Why not introduce an animal into class? Many preschool programs and day-cares have fish tanks located
in their toddler rooms and classes. Mini teaching sessions can be centred around caring for fish and learning to
appreciate the gentle, calm and delicate nature of such pets.