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Animal-Assisted Therapy: A unique way of dealing with learning and behavior challenges

Animal-Assisted Therapy: A unique way of dealing with learning and behavior challenges

Published: 08/15/2010 by Eileen Bona M.Ed

» Health and Wellness

Animal-assisted therapy is new to our Canadian concept of counseling and it offers hope to the percentage of children and youth who do not fair well in mainstream therapeutic settings. These children may have diagnosed disabilities or mental health disorders, brain abnormalities, behavioral symptoms or many other things affecting their ability to do well in traditional counseling or in school. The affinity and attachment children and youth have with animals provide a natural motivation to engage in therapy.

Specifically, Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is 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.1

According to anthropologist Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence and entomologist E.O. Wilson (1984), winner of two Pulitzer prizes, humans are genetically attuned to pay attention to animals and nature due to the fact that we, as a species, evolved with animals in a natural setting. They claim that we have a need to affiliate with other living organisms, that animals and nature optimize our health and bring about positive changes in our behavior and that contact with animals and nature influences our cognition, health and well being. This is the foundational belief behind working with animals in a natural setting to help people in need.

Animals provide unconditional love and acceptance, honesty, immediate responses to our feelings and actions and have a way of putting people at ease in social situations. The research that has been conducted states that animal interactions can facilitate language, enhance verbal skills, increase attention span and stimulate and improve cognitive abilities in children and adolescents9.

With regard to therapy, children with behavioral and mental health issues showed an increase in general functioning scores when an animal was included in their therapy sessions11 and interacting with an animal can reduce anxiety14.

Outside therapy, interacting with a dog can lower anxiety5, interacting with animals can improve empathic ability3 and pet owners have higher self esteem and confidence.12

Research and anecdotal evidence also clearly identifies that animals can act as a buffer in traumatic experiences2, can help people adjusting to serious illness or death of a loved one8, can support sexual10 and physical abuse victims6, and can decrease loneliness4 and depression7. Research in this field is ongoing.

Currently there are no standards to practice for animal-assisted therapy in Canada. Until these have been developed anyone can claim that they are an animal-assisted therapist. An unqualified therapist can do significant damage so people seeking this form of therapy should be cautious.

One way to find a qualified therapist is to contact a professional regulatory body such as the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta. A regulatory body helps to ensure therapists are practicing legally, ethically and within their professional scope.

It would help for an AAT therapist to have a masters in counseling, psychology, or social work as this would ensure they have a solid clinical foundation.  Be sure that the problem you are trying to solve is within the therapist’s “scope”. That means the therapist should have knowledge about the issue in which you are seeking treatment. A therapist who deals with addiction problems may not want or be able to handle behavior issues.

Of course, experience with animals is a necessity.  Not only should a therapist have a solid background in the animals they choose to work with but they should also have the skill necessary to create a positive animal-client interaction. Only with this interaction will the animals be able to play a productive role in the therapeutic process. Animals that are certified to do AAT are best.

One case I have experienced personally is about a sixteen year old girl, Sherry*. Sherry was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Reportedly, she was physically and verbally aggressive and exhibited behavior that had criminal potential.

Sherry had a low cognitive ability and significant learning challenges. She was extremely resistant in her first session. She did not hold eye contact or speak to me and was extremely rude to her mother. I stood near my rescued race horse while I talked to her mother and during our conversation my horse, Echo, put his head on my shoulder. Quietly and unexpectedly Sherry said “awww”. I moved away and continued to talk to Sherry’s mother. In my absence, Sherry approached Echo and began to stroke his nose while he nuzzled her. The bond was made. Sherry and I have been working together for more than a year now. She is no longer physically aggressive and her mother has indicated that things are quieter and calmer at home.

Sherry is learning to communicate verbally in a way that is respectful and her mother is learning to set fair and consistent boundaries. Sherry has sixteen years of poor behavior to unravel but she is on the right path. Until she met Echo, Sherry had been to four therapists and two different psychiatrists but had refused to engage with any of them. The power of animals for children and youth sometimes provides enough motivation for them to get the help they so desperately need but vehemently resist.

Another example is a fourteen year old boy, Allan*, who was brought by his mother because he was diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder and suffered from panic attacks. He was afraid to engage in regular daily activities for fear that he would have a panic attack.

Allan’s mother had brought him to several therapists and psychiatrists. Even though he was on medication for his condition the panic attacks continued. Allan was desperately hoping that something or anything could help him. He was motivated to attend therapy but worried that the therapy would have little or no effect on his condition.

Allan chose the lead mare, Buttons, to work with during therapy. Buttons is a highly sensitive Arabian Quarter horse cross and she too suffered from severe anxiety when she was away from her herd. Together, Allan and Buttons helped each other to overcome their fears in a way that helped Allan increase his self confidence while providing him with concrete coping skills for his anxiety that he could use is daily life. Allan has now graduated from grade 12 and he credits his therapy and work with Buttons for his success.

Sometimes animals just know what to do in the right moment when a child or youth is “stuck.” During an anger management camp for children and youth with cognitive disabilities and behavior management issues last summer the children got into conflict and one girl, Teena*, who was about eleven years old and diagnosed with FASD along with other things, decided that she was no longer going to be part of the group. She withdrew and sat with her back to us at the gate.

We problem solved ways to get her to rejoin us and took turns trying to re-engage her in the program. She flatly refused. Just as I began to think we were not going to get her back our sheep, Dolly, stuck her head into our circle and began to nudge Teena. We told her that Dolly too wanted her to join us. Still, she
flatly refused.

Dolly would not take no for an answer. She turned herself around and started to rub behind Teena’s leg! Teena burst out laughing, as did the rest of us, which broke the ice and helped Teena rejoin us easily. Everyone apologized and problem solved the situation and the activities resumed. Animals are sometimes incredibly good at doing things us human helpers just can’t seem to manage.

AAT has been found to be extremely effective, especially at reaching the hard to reach or those who have not yet found success in therapy. More empirical research in this field will lead to more acceptance of it as a viable, therapeutic medium. It can provide hope for those who, in some cases, have given up hope. <>


  1. Fine, A. (2006). Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, 2nd Edition.
  2. Arambasic, L. & Kerestes, G. (1998). The role of pet ownership as a possible variable in traumatic experience. Presented at the 8th International Conference on Human-Animal Interactions, The Changing Roles of Animals in Society, September 10-12, 1998, Prague.
  3. Ascione, F.R. (1992).  Enhancing children’s attitudes about the humane treatment of animals: Generalization to human-directed empathy.
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  4. Banks, M.R. & Banks, W.A. (2002). The effects of animal-assisted therapy on loneliness in an elderly population in long-term care facilities. Journal of Gerontoly and Biological Medical Science, 57(7), 428-432. 
  5. Barker, S. & Dawson, K. (1998). The effects of animal-assisted therapy on anxiety ratings of hospitalized psychiatric patients.  Psychiatric Services, 49, 797-801.
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  11. Schultz, P. N., Remick-Barlow, G. A., & Robbins, L. (2007).  Equine-assisted psychotherapy: a mental health promotion/intervention modality for
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