Animal Assisted Therapy – Do People Benefit?

The bond between humans and dogs has been well documented as having a positive impact on both our physical and emotional health and this is something that is being encouraged in the developing field of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). But what is Animal Assisted Therapy and do people really benefit from this approach?

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Quite simply Animal Assisted Therapy is when an animal is brought into a therapy session, care setting or other health and social care environment with the view of providing support either on an individual basis or in a group setting.
The animals used in this type of therapy range hugely from dogs through to horses, reptiles, cats and everything in-between but regardless of the species the animal must undergo an assessment to ensure they are suitable both in terms of temperament and in health. This is not only to safe guard the individuals involved in the therapy session but also ensure the animal is going to be comfortable in the role and not placed under any undue stress.

Types of Animal Assisted Therapy

There are four main types of Animal Assisted Therapy, these being:

  • Animal Visiting Programmes where a dog or other animal will visit a care home, hospice, school an individual’s own home or other setting to provide support to residents. Dogs for Good, Pets as Therapy, Therapet and Caring Canines are just some of the organisations providing this type of service.
  • Equine Based Programmes such as Riding for the Disabled, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy to help those with neuro-sensory conditions and Equine facilitated learning centres.
  • Therapy Based Programmes where an animal such as a dog or other companion animal is present during a counselling or other type of session. Often this type of session involves a multi-disciplinary approach for example a therapist or other professional working alongside the animals handler.
  • Residential Programmes such as resident cats or dogs in a care home setting or residential schools which are based on farms and similar locations.

Do people benefit?

Information from The Society for Companion Animal Studies and other source say that people undoubtedly do benefit from Animal Assisted Therapy. Studies have shown that stroking cats and dogs can reduce blood pressure and heart rate, promote general well-being and can even help with improving fine motor skills of an individual through grooming an animal. As well as these physical benefits that come about from being in contact with animals there are also well documented emotional and psychologically benefits as well. These can range from people feeling more relaxed around animals, so they can talk more freely through to reductions in stress and anxiety levels. Children who struggle with the school environment for one reason or another are being reported as showing significant improvements when they are given the opportunity to read to a dog or to take time out to simply stroke and talk to a dog. Where individuals are given the responsibility of caring for an animal, for example in a residential programme, then increases in confidence and self-worth are often seen as a result.

Of course at the heart of Animal Assisted Therapy the welfare of the animals being brought into the sessions must be constantly monitored to ensure that they are able to cope with what is being asked of them and that the benefits to the people does not come at the detriment to the animal. However it does appear that when sessions are carefully planned, with clear aims and objectives set then this type of therapy can be a very positive experience for those involved.

You can find more information about Animal Assisted Therapy from The Society for Companion Animal Studies website and also The Pet Health Council website.