Animal Assisted Therapy
Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened."
Animal Assisted Therapy ('AAT')
What is AAT?
AAT is a form of therapy using animals in the healing/treatment process. A qualified Animal Therapist will facilitate the interaction between the animal and the human. People of all ages can experience AAT as individuals or in a group setting.
Pets give love unconditionally. Love heals. This is why in many countries, pets are being used in schools, court rooms, offender rehabilitation programs and prisons, as a means to bring children, teenagers and adults, peace and loving connection which may sadly have been lacking in their lives, until then.
There are many ways in which pets are used to assist in therapy. We are most familiar with the service of guide dogs for the blind for example, but pets are also used in hospitals, hospices, for people with learning difficulties, special needs, eating disorders, depression, autism and so on. In short, without doubt, pets provide natural healing and consequently improve our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. Dogs can see sadness, upset, grief and disease in humans.
What can AAT help with and what are some of the benefits?
There are many uses for AAT including to:
- alleviate loneliness
- regulate emotions and behaviour
- lift depression
- reduce stress and anxiety
- bring calm, relax you (e.g. through stroking your cat or dog)
- increase motivation
- bring discipline and build routine (through grooming, feeding, walking your pet, teaching tricks)
- give purpose through being needed
- teach compassion
- greater interactive communication and reintegration into a community
- increase empathy
- make you laugh through play
- increase social interaction and physical wellbeing (exercising and talking to neighbours when dog walking)
- improve self-esteem and self-confidence
- offer companionship and protection thereby making you feel more secure
- reduce incidence of self harming
- reduce the incidence of substance abuse
- reduce the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder/ trauma
- rehabilitate of young/ adult offenders and those in prison serving custodial sentences
AAT relies on the bond that exists between humans and animals, particularly animals which can be trained to be part of the therapy such as:
- Guinea pigs
Where can you find AAT programs?
There are countless numbers of AAT programs including in:
- Hospitals and hospices
- Nursing homes
- Rehabilitation centres
- Therapists premises
- The outdoors
Examples of AAT
Examples include the Dogs on the Inside Project in USA where shelter dogs are being introduced into life prisoner cells as a form of rehabilitation.
Children's Dog Shelter Reading Programs
In the Book Buddies Reading Program, children at this Humane Society read to anxious shelter dogs to increase their chances of adoption. At the same time children learn about empathy and improve their reading skills in a win-win for all!
A Day in the Life of Fraser: Chippenham & Johnston-Willis Hospitals' Pet Therapy Program shows how an AAT Dog changes the feelings and emotions of the patients young and old from frustration to determination and from depression to hope.
The NHS provides AAT in many hospitals across the UK. Consult your doctor to find out whether you can access AAT locally.
Battersea Home For Dogs & The Dogs Trust Project
In UK, Battersea Home for Dogs and Cats and the London Dogs Trust are achieving awards in recognition of their high rates of success at reintegrating young offenders in the criminal justice system.
The Dogs Trust currently runs the project alongside youth offending teams in the London boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster and Enfield as a focus on community alternatives to custody. The initiative, which has received backing from the Youth Justice Board for its “pioneering educational work”, involves young people working with a trainer from the Trust and a dog that is yet to be re-homed. The programme is designed to encourage responsible dog ownership and teaches aspects of citizenship education, such as respect, responsibility, empathy, following rules, taking care of others, understanding, self worth and timekeeping.
Elvira Meucci-Lyons, Head of Campaigns & Community at Dogs Trust, said that the programme is changing the attitudes and behaviour of young people who take part. “We end up hopefully teaching them to have more confidence and give them some empathy,” she said. “I think they also understand respect more and have a greater sense of responsibility.”
Hong Kong & China
Animals Asia’s Professor Paws is an innovative programme that sees registered therapy dogs visit local schools in Hong Kong and China to teach children to overcome their fear of dogs, learn safety around dogs, responsible pet care and compassion for all animals. On a broader level, the programme is sculpting attitudes to dogs (and all animals) at a young age and teaching children the importance of kindness and compassion.
Many of these children have never had the chance to touch a dog before their first Professor Paws class. Often in the first class they are terrified because they have simply had no experience of dogs, or their parents have instilled this fear in them, telling them not to touch dogs because they are dirty and dangerous.
Normally by the end of the second lesson most children are willing to walk, brush and feed the dogs. The fear is gone. By then, the children want to pat and hug the dogs. Some even cry when they have to say goodbye to their furry professor. The fact that the children have overcome their fear of dogs is empowering in itself. Teachers often say that the students have more confidence and because they are having such fun, even forget that they are actually speaking and learning.
Research has shown that dogs can be instrumental in improving the learning skills of a wide variety of children. Close interaction with dogs is proven to increase self-confidence and pro-social behaviour among students, while encouraging the development of compassion.
Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Japan and Malaysia
Animal Asia's Dr Dog, registered therapy dogs are visiting hospitals, homes for the elderly, disabled centres, orphanages and schools in three mainland Chinese cities and Hong Kong. Dr Dog has also been introduced to Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Japan and Malaysia by providing local animal-welfare groups with training and advice to run their own programmes independently.
Dr Dogs give patients the feeling that they are special. Patients know their loyal furry friends won’t judge them for the way they look or for their illness and will accept them regardless of class, race, age or disability. Dogs and their volunteer owners are spreading the message that they are our best friends and helpers, not food or fur. Through demonstrating the contribution dogs make to human society, attitudes are being changed towards dogs, and animals in general.
Campaign or Create your own AAT program
If this is a healing tool which is of interest to you, please reach out to your nearest centre. If there is no such program available close by, you may be able to either campaign for AAT with your local council or, start your own AAT program with the help of others who have blazed such trails!