Special Needs: The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy

It is said that a dog is man’s best friend, and we can see why. Dogs are loyal, faithful companions who love to be by their owner’s side. They bring us joy, help relieve stress, offer comfort, improve our mood, and add a great deal of value to our lives overall. 

Not only are dogs incredible pets to have, but some dogs also are able to help people beyond the traditional ways that pets help their owners. These dogs provide animal assisted therapy, and in doing so, help people in countless ways with things such as reduced blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, reduced pain, improved fine motor skills and more. In addition to dogs, other animals you may see used in animal assisted therapy are horses, cats, birds, rabbits and even dolphins. 

How It Works

With animal assisted therapy, the client, therapist and animal work together with clear goals for change in mind. Often, the trained animal will come into the appointment, or the hospital, with the owner or handler who has trained the service animal. In some cases, like with hippotherapy (the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment), the patient will go to where the animal is. 

The time the animal spends with the patient varies based on the therapy goals that have been set, and this therapy is often used in conjunction with other forms of therapy. Animal assisted therapy has proven to be wonderful for children with disabilities. 

How It Helps

According to the Child Mind Institute website, animals can help children who have issues like autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, sensory processing challenges and anxiety. Connecting with an animal can help kids feel grounded and keep them from getting upset in tough situations. Service dogs can go anywhere and can make kids who are terrified of places like the doctor or dentist much calmer. Animals can even be part of a kid’s therapy. 

Therapists sometimes use service dogs to make necessary exercises fun. For example, if a child is working on fine motor skills, a therapist might have the child brush the dog’s teeth. Reaching over the dog or getting down on the floor with them can help kids with weak muscle strength. 

For kids with learning disabilities, a therapist who’s working on memory might use the steps involved in taking care of a dog to teach kids. And reading out loud to a dog is much more fun than reading to their therapist.

In addition, the United Disabilities Service Organization says animal assisted therapy can help kids with disabilities enhance self-esteem and self-confidence, increase empathy, compassion, and nurturing, reduce stress and lots more. Kids with ADHD, PTSD and autism have sometimes seen reduced symptoms, plus improved levels of interest, focus and motivation. 

Animal assisted therapy, in conjunction with other forms of therapy, can have countless benefits for patients and has proven to be very effective. If you are interested in learning more, be sure to ask your healthcare provider how this form of therapy may be of benefit to your child. 

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