Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
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Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy By Marie-Christine Joly

Equine Assisted Therapy
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Cynthia K. Chandler (2005, p.5) describes Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) that exploits the strong human-animal bond in order to help the human in a certain healing process. In order to be considered as animal-assisted therapy, the animal as well as the instructor of the animal, both have to be trained under certain criteria. Chandler notes that in this process, the therapist sets up some therapy goals and measures the progress with each meeting. Moreover, AAT can be used in a wide variety of ways: in group therapy or individual therapy, it can be used to help children, adults, and elders and can also be used to help treating a lot of different mental or physical health problems.

History of Pet Assisted Therapy

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As long as the humans and the animals cohabited, they have helped us find food; for transportation and as well as for companionship. (Altschiller, 2011, p.11)  One of the first time that small pet have been involved in therapeutic treatments, was in 1790 at the York Retreat, a retreat for mentally ill patients. Founded by William Tuke, “It was found that relating to small animals, as well as tending gardens, helped patients gain a sense of well-being and, therefore, control”. (Salotto, 2001, p.4) Afterwards, in 1867, horses were used to help patients affected by epilepsy in Germany. As early as the early 1950's, Dr. Boris Levinson started researches on the benefits of animals in therapy; this may be called “the birth of pet therapy” (Salotto, 2001, p.5). Later, in 1961, Dr. Levinson wrote a paper regarding the great benefits of a treatment with the intervention of a dog (Altschiller, 2011, p.3). Indeed, he accidentay discovered that the presence of a dog really helped a disturbed child with communication problems to talk a lot more easily when he was left alone with the dog.

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In fact, Chandler (2005, p.5) states that there is a natural tendency for humans and pets to form a great and special bond even though the human was not the owner of the pet in question. At the beginning of the animal-assisted therapy, many clinicians were skeptical about the healing power of pets. Many animals have been used in many experiments to define the benefits they could bring in a therapy: rabbits, dogs, cats, horses, hawks, poultry, birds and sea-gulls for example. In 1970’s, the work of Dr. Levinson motivated a young veterinarian, Dr. Bill McCulloch, to conduct further research on the human-animal bond, or otherwise called Human Companion Animal Bond (HCAB). “As pets are part of the family, their well-being or lack of it, has a huge effect’s on people’s quality of life” (Salotto, 2001, p.5).

Prison Pet Partnerships - Dogs and Inmates Helping Eachother
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Dr. Leo Bustad, traveled the world between 1975-1985 to promote the HCAB and furthered his program called People Pet Partnership (PPP), a program that has led to the development of many therapy programs in hospitals, schools and prisons. (Salotto, 2001, p.5) Finally, Dr. Bustad had a lot of influence regarding the development of Pet Assisted Therapy Program in Washington: “the first country that owned a staff person responsible for the facilitation of Pet Assisted Therapy” (Salotto, pp.4-5). Almost five decades after Dr. Levinson made many conferences about the unique therapy that involves pet throughout the processes, Altschiller (2011, p.6) states that many mental health professionals acknowledge the enormous benefits of this therapeutic practice.

Positive Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy


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According to Becker (2002, p.23), the moment that someone is asked to talk about his childhood pet(s), they automatically make the connections with a much more easier life. In fact, even though what you go through in your youth is far from being simple: isolation, learning problems, rejection, fears, loneliness, the companionship of pets is the constant that helps people get through all this. Moreover, “a pet can serve as an emotional refuge, a patient listener, and a connective tissue that gives the family, no matter its trials, a sense of purpose and belonging” (Becker, 2002, p.46). According to the National Pet Owners Survey made in 2007-2008, around 63 percent of American households had either a dog or a cat. This percentage is much more significant in families with children, especially because parents adopt pets for their qualities concerning their parental skills: “love, companionship, compassion, self-esteem, and a sense of responsibility”. (Altschiller, 2011, p.9)

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Finally, there are various types of animals that can help children and others, depending on whether the origins of the problems are mental or physical. (Altschiller, 2011, p.9) One additional example is the help of Equine Facilitated Program to treat children that have been sexually abused. The results of a study conducted by Kemp et al. (2014, p.546) support their hypothesis that “participants would show significant reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety, undesirable behaviours and trauma after completing the EFT program” regardless of the gender, the age or the ethnicity". Another study that has been conducted in 2014 to evaluate the effectiveness of AAT on children that have mental health problems caused by traumatic childhood experiences, also concluded that the children, after undergoing an animal-assisted therapy, where feeling more secured with respect to attachment. (Balluerka et al., p.106)

Depression and Isolation

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The touching story that Dr. Marty Becker tells in his book The Healing Power of Pets, enlightens the story of a man that has severe coronary artery disease and his dog, Dakota. Becker underlines the fact that Mike’s dog allowed him to realize that he “still had a role, a mission, and a purpose” in life and that he should not stay isolated and sad in this depression that he developed. (Becker, 2002, p.77) Furthermore, the results of a meta-analysis conducted by Souter and Miller in 2007, concluded that, through their researches and experiments, some significant reductions of the depressive symptoms have been noticed in the people affected by the mental illness. The meta-analysis allowed Souter and Miller to conclude that animal-assisted activities have definitely positive impacts on people that are affected by depression. In addition, in 2005, Lutwack-Bloom, Wijewickrama and Smith (2005) did a study that aimed to isolate the value of a pet in the animal-assisted therapy. By visiting the inpatients, the first group being visited by a volunteer alone and the second group by the volunteer accompanied by a pet, they noted the changes in the inpatients’ mood on a six months period with the help of the Geriatric Depression Scale and Profile of Mood Disorders. This study allowed the researchers to conclude that the presence of the animal, in this case a dog, resulted in a positive change in the mood of the inpatients being visited by the volunteer with a dog. (Lutwack-Bloom et al., 2005)

Physical Illness

Swoosh and Bryce
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Additionally, pets have also been known to be a great source of motivation to the patients that are physically ill in their healing process. For example, the Phoenix Children’s Hospital has an animal-assisted therapy program to accompany, support and motivate the children in their recovery process. As a matter of fact, a lot of children being confine in the four walls of a hospital are most likely to lose the motivation to continue to progress and get back to their joyful life. However, the presence of animals, mainly dogs, helps the young patients to become a child again and forget their severe problems for a moment. In the same fashion, the presence of the dog, in the case of the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, not only helps the children to keep a up their spirits, but it also makes them feel special.

Avianna shows Pet Therapy
Dog Jesse around the
children's therapeutic playroom.
Photo © renown.org
Furthermore, the moment a dog enters a room, it automatically changes the atmosphere for the children. Moreover, as written above, that special bond the kids have with the animals motivate them to improve. That is to say that, due to the higher self-esteem that a kid normally feels with the presence of an animal, they will put more efforts in their rehabilitation. Therefore, children will become better in finding ways progress into their recovery process. As Cherie says in the video Animal Assisted Therapy at Phoenix Children's Hospital, the love of animals is unconditional; they do not care about whether the kid has hair or not, or if the child walks or not, and obviously, this strong proof of love from the animal will significantly motivate the children. “I did not believe I’d be doing half the things I am now, if it weren’t for the therapy dogs program” shared Natalee in the video (Phoenix Children’s hospital, 2011). In addition to their moral support, “pets also have a remarkable sixth sense to perceive and cognate, long before and actual signal is sent or received, to know what’s coming or to alert to a danger”. (Becker, 2002, pp.97-98) Therefore, the company of an animal with you when you are a person at risk of heart attacks can save your life. In the light of this fact, Becker also wrote that the animal companions can detect the low mood of illness, the need for play, and distraction from our woes.

Final Thoughts...

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Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) continues to intrigue us. As a matter of fact, the simple and non-judgemental love that the animals have for humans helps the human to develop a good self-esteem and therefore develop his self-awareness. Another key point to realize, is that it is an exchange of love and rescue for both human and animal. As Becker states when speaking of Dakota and Mike, “the benefits of the bond clearly flow both ways, working to strengthen the health and well-being of all”. (Becker, 2014, p.98) Thus, this is why AAT is a positive and rewarding experience for both human patients and animals alike.


Altschiller, D. (2011). Animal-assisted Therapy. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood.

Balluerka, N., Muela, A., Amiano, N., & Caldentey, M. A. (2014). Influence of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) on the attachment representations of youth in residential care. Children & Youth Services Review, 42103-109. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2014.04.007

Becker, M. (2002). The Healing Power of Pets. (1rst ed.). New York, N.Y., United States: Hyperion.

Chandler, K. C. (2005). Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling. (1rst ed.). New York, N.Y., United States: Routledge.

Coetzee, N., Beukes, J. T., & Lynch, I. (2013). Substance Abuse Inpatients' Experience of Animal-Assisted Therapy. Journal Of Psychology In Africa (Elliott & Fitzpatrick, Inc.), 23(3), 447-480.

Kemp, K., Signal, T., Botros, H., Taylor, N., & Prentice, K. (2014). Equine Facilitated Therapy with Children and Adolescents Who Have Been Sexually Abused: A Program Evaluation Study. Journal Of Child & Family Studies, 23(3), 558-566. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9718-1

Lutwack-Bloom, P., Wijewickrama, R., & Smith, B. (2005). Effects of Pets versus People Visits with Nursing Home Residents. Journal Of Gerontological Social Work, 44(3/4), 137-160. doi:10.1300/J083v44n03_09

Phoenix Children’s Hospital. (2011). Animal Assisted Therapy at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgXYFnwguj8

Salotto, P. (2001). Pet Assisted Therapy: A Loving Intervention and an Emerging Profession: Leading To a Friendlier, Healthier, and More Peaceful World. (1rst ed.). Norton, MA, United States: D.J. Publications.

Souter, M. A., & Miller, M. D. (2007). Do Animal-Assisted Activities Effectively Treat Depression? A Meta-Analysis. Anthrozoos, 20(2), 167-180. doi:10.2752/175303707X207954

About The Author

Marie-Christine Joly is presently studying at Champlain College Lennoxville located in Quebec, Canada. The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy was written as part of an assignment for The Beast Within in the Department of Humanities.

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