Animal Assisted Therapy
What is Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is intervention delivered by a professional with the participation of an animal. Cats, rabbits, horses, and other animals may be trained for AAT. I've has chosen to use therapy dogs to support pediatric speech-language therapy services.
What does AAT look like?
Since AAT is goal directed, the activities will vary based on the client’s therapy goals. One thing to remember is the dog is not doing therapy. The SLP is doing therapy with the participation of the dog. The clinician develops an individualized treatment plans based on client needs and uses the therapy dog as a tool to achieve therapy goals. For example the dog may follow directions presented by an client learning to navigate their communication device ("get ball") or provide a comforting presence to a client navigating a new social situation.
Can therapy dogs really help with communication skills? Is there evidence that supports this?
Research has consistently shown the benefits of therapy animals for children with Autism or related behavioral challenges. The Spring 2015 issue of Advances discussed the potential of pet therapy to improve patient's life outside the therapy setting including "better social interactions, increased motor function and decreased physiological reactions to life stress" (Siewertsen, 2015). A similar study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that "dogs can be an effective component in therapy for children showing social withdrawal" (Redefer and Goodman 1989). More research is needed to strengthen these findings, something I hope to partner with researchers on in the future.