Monday, 18 September 2017 13:38

What You Need To Know About Animal Assisted Therapy

Most pet owners know, cuddling up to a furry friend can improve one’s sense of well-being. And that’s the primary reason we so frequently see therapy animals in schools, hospitals, libraries and nursing homes. Children with a range of disabilities, medical conditions, and developmental or behavioral needs have benefitted from both animal interaction and companionship. Would a therapy pet or animal assisted therapy benefit your special needs child?

To answer that question it’s important to understand these key factors before reaching out to a therapy dog association about a pet for your child: 

First, learn about how these animals are trained. Second, communicate with your health practitioner to assess your child’s level of readiness for either an in-home therapeutic animal partner, or a pet-assisted therapy program, in which a pet is present during therapeutic sessions but is not the child’s at-home companion animal. Finally, call and visit a reputable companion animal or assisted therapy animal training facility to identify the appropriate companion for your child. For the first and last items, we provide some general information in this article, and you can learn more at the websites listed below in the Resources.

Therapy Animal Certification Basics

Not just any animal can become a therapy companion. The general certification process for dogs, for example, is long and rigorous—including obedience training, good citizenship training, and an animal behavior evaluation that assess how the dog handles unpredictable circumstances and settings. There is also a process for assessing an animals’ fit for a particular client and their special need—be it emotional, developmental, physical, or a medical need. Additional training may be required for an animal to become certified to work with different situations or health conditions. These requirements may vary by organization, which is why it is important to work with your child’s health practitioners and the certifying organization in order to find the best fit.

Companion Therapy Animal or Animal-Assisted Therapy

Be it a dog, rabbit, or other furry four-legged friend, a companion animal for a special needs child is as much a responsibility for the child (and your family) as it is for the animal who will provide unconditional support, protection, and trust. The family, and ultimately the child to the extent of her or his abilities, will be responsible for the care of the animal. 

If your child is able to accept that responsibility consistently, and meets the qualifications of the therapy animal agency, then he or she may be a candidate for an at-home companion animal. The benefits of a live-in companion animal for a special needs child include:

  • the ability to sense and interrupt disruptive behaviors, meltdowns, seizures, etc.;
  • the ability to protect the child, comfort the child, and locate a child who has wandered off;
  • giving the child a sense of purpose, security, confidence, and so forth;
  • providing opportunities for play and to learn and even teach other family members;
  • helping give both the caregivers and the child more freedom because the animal is trained to “supervise”;
  • helping a child deal with difficult emotions, with loss or grief;
  • helping a child ease into new social situations.

When thinking about companion animals, don’t assume a dog is your only option. Cats, rabbit, and even fish can provide many of the same benefits. They also may be a great first-step toward a companion animal that requires more responsibility.

If a companion animal at-home is not a suitable match for your child, animal assisted therapy could be an option. Studies have consistently shown that exposure to animals in therapy improves communications, reduces anxiety, lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and can bolster self-esteem and communication. (And, many of the above listed benefits also apply). Animal therapies can augment typical occupation, physical or even speech therapy. Animal assisted therapy not only requires a specially trained service animal, but also a uniquely trained animal handler or therapist. You will want to inquire about the training of both the animal and it’s handler when considering animal assisted therapeutic programs.

Next Steps

As you are starting the discussion about animal therapy options with your family and your health provider, and researching options in your local area, you can also take these next steps with your child:

  • Visit an animal shelter—observe and even video record your child’s response to different animals.
  • Visit a service dog organization, meet with trainers, and see if there are programs available for your child.
  • Watch how your child reacts to different types of animals, both those owned by friends/family and those encountered elsewhere such as at the park.
  • Read books and watch videos that show the role different animals have in people’s lives—include nonfiction, documentaries, and fiction in your selection. Notice how your child responds and, if possible, discuss the stories. Include a variety of animals and roles they can have in helping people with special needs.
  • Keep talking with your child about animals, responsibility for care, and overall feelings toward different animals.
  • Narrow a list of animals that your child seems comfortable with and continue to focus on resources for bringing one of those animals into your child’s life.


Learn More About Therapy Dog Training at Therapy Dog International

Animal Assisted Therapy by Tails-U-Win in Connecticut

Therapy Dog Training by Tails of Joy in Connecticut

Connecticut Therapy Animals

Soul Friends Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of CT includes dogs, horses, rabbits, and other animals.

Merlin’s Kids

4 Paws for Ability Autism Assistance Dog Program

Dalien, S. “Animal Therapy for children with Special Needs.”  At 

Benefits of Pet Ownership for Children with Special Needs. 

Animal Assisted therapy for Special Needs by

Book:  A Friend Like Henry:  The Remarkable True Story of an Autistic Boy and the Dog that Unlocked His World by Nuala Gardner. 

Published in Children

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