Listen to Psychologist, Clinic Director, Co-Owner & Head Trainer, Samantha King, speak about Animal-Assisted Therapy in an ABC Radio interview from October 2015. Sam did this interview as an adjunct to her presentation on Animal-Assisted Therapy at the 50th Australian Psychological Society Conference.
What is Animal-Assisted Therapy
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 of the human-animal bond on both adults and children. As animals are non-judgemental and provide 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 assist in reducing anxiety, increasing relaxation, increasing social interaction, increasing communication within sessions, and acting 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. This is because 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, a child making a large amount of noise and movement might cause the dog to shy away and show some discomfort; however, once the child calms down, the dog may 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 then encourages the dog to calm. 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 dog’s abilities and handlers abilities, and of course, the client’s presentation and therapy goals. However, an example of therapy dogs being used within Occupational Therapy Sessions 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 seems simple and gimmicky, this intervention potentially engages an otherwise totally resistant or non-verbal child in a way that they have never engaged in a therapeutic intervention before. A 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. The client may become frustrated when they cannot 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 into your workplace safely and ethically for the clients and the dogs. We are confident that you will feel prepared and excited to get started as a human-canine therapy team upon graduation from our course!