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Amy Johnson Dec 2, 2009

Animal Assisted Therapy by any other name…is not the same

For some of those planning to use animal assisted therapy (AAT), it is equivalent to getting a new piece of technology without the benefit of directions. AAT seems simple enough; just bring the friendly dog along to the clinic as you would any other accessory and voila, sit back and watch the magic happen. Wouldn’t it be great if it worked that way? But alas, just like any other therapeutic intervention, it doesn’t.

Animal assisted therapy is often misunderstood. In fact, if you were to Google animal assisted therapy, you’d find dozens of terms (ie animal facilitated therapy, pet therapy, therapy pets, animal assisted interventions, animal assisted activities) and a whole host of definitions. However, following the writings of experts in the field, the appropriate terminology is animal assisted therapy or even animal facilitated therapy.

The Delta Society is the go-to organization when it comes to animal assisted therapy and the certification of therapy dogs. Their definition of animal assisted therapy, which is used in the majority of the literature on the subject, is: "… a goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession. AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. AAT is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature. This process is documented and evaluated." (From Standards of Practice for Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy).”

Key features of AAT include specified goals and objectives tailored to each individual where progress is measured. Most people are familiar with pet visitation programs where trained and certified therapy dogs go into facilities randomly and visit with the elderly, those in hospice, children with illnesses…but would that be considered true animal assisted therapy? Not necessarily. Visitation is considered an Animal Assisted Activity (AAA). Sure, studies have shown that the mere presence of a domestic animal can reduce anxiety levels, lower blood pressure, decrease elevated heart rates, but it does not follow the definition established for therapy. Think about clown visits to sick children at local hospitals. Would that be considered clown assisted therapy?

The Delta Society defines Animal Assisted Activities as: “…providing opportunities for motivational, educational, recreational and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance quality of life. AAA are delivered in a variety of environments by specially trained professionals, paraprofessionals and/or volunteers, in association with animals that meet specific criteria." (from Standards of Practice for Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy)

AAA tend to be more casual, “meet and greet” type activities that involve visitation. These visits are generic rather than befitting a particular client which is the biggest difference between AAA and AAT. Volunteers and treatment providers do not take detailed notes nor measure outcomes. Visits are spontaneous and last as long or as short as needed.

Regardless of whether you’re using the intervention in an AAT or AAA context, animals act as excellent emotional outlets where students, patients and clients can communicate using verbal and non-verbal techniques. Animals have a calming effect and their companionship is unlike human interaction in that it’s uncomplicated. They are non-judgmental, accepting, attentive and non-threatening.

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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