Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Dr. Fluffy: An In-Depth Look at Animal-Assisted Therapy

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Dr. Fluffy: An In-Depth Look at Animal-Assisted Therapy

Article excerpt

Five-year-old James waits on the carpet with his classmates, his blue eyes glued on the door, waiting for his weekly visitors to come. Today the visitors will teach him new vocabulary words and help him practice following directions, taking turns, and identifying body parts. Finally, the door opens and furry friends Glacier, Sesna, and Katie enter, with their trainers in tow, ready to go to work. James and his classmates have Down syndrome. Their school has brought in three therapy dogs from The Delta Society, an organization of Animal-Assisted Therapy teams, to facilitate small group sessions focused on promoting verbal skills and practicing good behaviors.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a fairly new practice whose underlying principles date back to the beginning of time. Man has always found companionship in animals, but now researchers, educators and therapists are finding that by drawing on that comfort, children and adults can attack physical, mental and emotional issues. The use of animals in therapy sessions has been shown to increase communication, teach responsibility and respect, and, in the case of equine therapy, increase one's muscle strength and development. AAT increases communication because the mere presence of an animal creates, in most people's minds, an environment of comfort and safety, and the animal serves as a "catalyst for human communication."

Obviously, not all people feel safe in the presence of an animal, and the degree of comfort varies from person to person; however, in 2009, the National Pet Owner's Survey revealed that approximately 62% of American households have at least one pet, thus the likelihood of someone responding positively to the presence of an animal is high. Clearly, most children respond positively to animals since a large percentage of children's literature and television shows feature animals. In the 1960s, child psychologist Boris Levinson, considered the father of pet therapy, realized that his patients were more relaxed and keen to reveal personal information when his dog was present.

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What makes AAT unique is its incorporation of a specific curriculum tailored to every patient. Therapists define a specific set of goals that the patient works to accomplish with the assistance of the animal. The children in James's class spend the year preparing to enter kindergarten the following year. Bringing in the therapy dogs allows the students to practice appropriate student behavior and learn basic concepts, like identifying body parts, while providing motivation (the dogs) in an exciting setting.

It is James's turn to brush the dog. He takes the dog brush from the trainer's hands and strokes Glacier's long, silky fur. After a bit, he flings the brush aside and throws his arms around her neck, nuzzling his face against her fur. The trainer points to Glacier's right ear and says, "This is Glacier's ear. Where is your ear?" James takes a second to think about the answer, then grabs his ear and replies, "ear!"

Animals are also useful for teaching citizenship skills such as respect and responsibility. Have you ever wondered what use Gary the Guinea Pig had in your child's first grade classroom? Yes, it was annoying carting his large, smelly cage home for the weekend, but the teacher knew what she was doing. …

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