What is Animal Assisted Therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), also known as Pet Therapy is an alternative or complementary type of therapy that includes the use of animals in a psychotherapy treatment based upon building a bond with an animal through interaction and play.
How does Animal Assisted therapy work?
It may involve observation, or instructional sessions, or an animal being present to help a Client open up and talk through history or challenges.
It is an in-depth trained professional process rather than just spending time with an animal, and should follow a Therapist’s treatment plan and a set of goals as determined by an experienced Professional.
-Example of Animal Assisted Therapy with Trauma Clients:
A dog’s presence alone is of benefit and comfort to a client with significant trauma history. They may have problems with self-worth and confidence and may be currently depressed. They may often look drawn and tired and walk with hunched shoulders.
Having a dog greet them with tail-wagging and a happy bounce may cause the client’s face to light up and they may walk taller. The client may look lighter and more relaxed than at any other time and may love to sit with a dog on their lap while in a therapy session.
-Example of Animal Assisted Therapy with Autistic Clients:
A young child with low-functioning autism who has severe expressive language and anxiety issues may find it very hard when visiting new places and extremely hard separating from their mother.
They may meet a dog in their first therapy session and quickly decide that wherever the dog is going, they want to go too. This can make the transition to the therapy room easier and the dog may now provide an indirect way for the child client to communicate, as well as serving as a role model for; appropriate boundary setting, emotional regulation and social skills development.
Spending some time showing the child client on how to correct the dog for getting too “up close and personal” (i.e., Rover licking) without them getting frustrated and losing their temper, or even needing to use verbal language. This may translate into improved responses in the child’s interactions with other children at school.
It may involve helping a child to follow instructions and pass them on (via trick training), working on emotional identification or empathy development (“How do you think Rover is feeling right now?” or “How do you think Rover would feel if…”) or social skills and sharing via a human versus canine version of Simon Says…
At other times observing a child client interact with the dog may give a Therapist valuable information for a clinical assessment, diagnosis and/or treatment, e.g., a young boy who teases 1 dog but who is incredibly gentle and affectionate with another dog.
-Example of Animal Assisted Therapy with Esteem & Attachment Clients
Observing a teenage girl with esteem and attachment issues may not understand why a dog likes her and wants pats from her.
What types of animals are included in Animal Animal Assisted Therapy?
-Dogs (Canine Assisted Therapy)
-Cats (Feline Assisted Therapy)
-Horses (known as Equine Assisted Therapy)
What are the benefits of animal assisted therapy?
By interacting with animals, getting cuddles, affection, with a friendly pet at a time when someone cannot handle very much interaction from other humans due to illness, pain, trauma, or depression can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. It can also release endorphins that produce a calming effect and helps reduce loneliness stress and can build trust and confidence.
Animal-assisted therapy can also act as a catalyst to motivate patients to help themselves. An injured child undergoing rehabilitation may happily take a dog for a walk, or throw the animal a ball, forgetting the pain for a little while and moving closer to going home from hospital.
Who should consider animal assisted therapy?
AAT is suitable for both adults and children.
- Children with Autism
- Patients undergoing chemotherapy
- Addiction Recovery
- People with mental health disorders; anxiety, depression
- Residents in long-term care facilities
- Patients hospitalized with chronic heart failure
- Ex Defence veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Children having physical or dental procedures
- Stroke victims and people undergoing physical therapy to regain motor skills
What are the risks of animal therapy?
- Being assigned the wrong type of animal.
- No safety instructions
- Therapists with no registration, or training.
What Certifications should I look for before booking an Animal Assisted Therapy Organisation?
There are two types:
-Clinical Animal Assisted Therapists should be Bachelor trained Health Professionals and registered with a regulatory body
-Community Animal Assisted Therapists are Community Volunteers with their dog at a hospital or school who may be working in the health industry in an admin role, Support worker role or are a Health worker who is not registered with a regulatory body.
Where can I get funding for Animal Assistance?
If you or someone you know needs access to an animal-assisted service but do not have the financial means, you can make an application for access to funded services through this application process. Apply here
Which are the reputable Animal Therapy Organisations in Australia?
You are able to search for many animal assisted therapy organisations on the bottom of the Animal Therapies website. You can filter by human condition, then search by animal type: Alpaca or Llama, Cat, Chicken, Dog, Donkey, Goats, Horse, and put in your postcode.
Here are some of the other organisations we’ve found:
The Delta Society operates across the nation providing volunteer-based therapy dog programs. Their Delta Therapy Dogs, Classroom Canines, and Paws the Pressure programs bring the joy of animal companionship to hospitals, care facilities, workplaces, and schools. Delta also provides an educational program, Delta Dog Safe, to teach children and parents positive and safe ways to behave around dogs, aiming to reduce dog bite incidents.
New South Wales
Paws Pet Therapy provides a weekly program in which their trained volunteers deliver animal-assisted therapy. They also run Paws ‘n’ Tales, a free initiative for children aged 4-8 who experience difficulties with reading. In this program, children are encouraged to practice reading to gentle and kind therapy dogs to improve their skills and develop a love for reading.
Happy Paws Happy Hearts Foundation are based at RSPCA Queensland Wacol Campus. Their team works with NDIS Participants and have an Animal Basics and Animal Handling Program and Rehabilitation Program for Veterans and State based Injured Workers Schemes
McIntyre Centre aims to improve the physical, social and mental health for children and adults with disability through equine-assisted therapy, sport and recreational programs.
The Psych Professionals in Queensland provide professionally trained and assessed therapy dogs and handlers for goal-oriented animal-assisted therapy.
Mullum Road Clinic are proud providers of animal-assisted therapy for children, teenagers, adults, and families. Their specialist teams are highly trained and include both therapy dogs and horses.
Psychmed’s Cat Relaxation Room is a safe place to unwind and relax with therapeutically trained cats. A session includes a free beverage, a fresh gourmet dessert from a local bakery, guided meditation, and mindfulness exercises.
Animal Companions is a non-profit organisation with over 100 members providing therapeutic visits with pet dogs to hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and other facilities.
Hobart Counselling Centre delivers animal-assisted therapy to patients in Tasmania. Their program is tailored to the needs, goals and abilities of the person, and includes one-on-one interaction, group sessions, and even farm visits.
Mind Your Paws provides trained therapy dogs and handlers to achieve set goals for a variety of people in the community. Their team comprises a handler who is a registered school teacher and two certified therapy dogs.
Red Rock Stud offers equine assisted therapy in conjunction with qualified psychologists. They offer both in-house and travelling services, and their programs are suitable for all ages and levels of experience.
Can Animal Therapy be paid for by the NDIS?
Yes – if it is in line with your goals and your Plan. You need to speak to your Plan Manager and Support Coordinator about this.
Some Doctors don’t mind writing a medical certificate for patients stating that their dog is being used in a companion support role and should be allowed to accompany the patient at most times, if it is reasonable.
Ready to create your free Pet Profile?
PetCloud is a national Australian organisation and trusted Partner of RSPCA Qld and provides NDIS Pet Owners assistance with domestic duties such as Dog Washing, Poo Patrol, Home Visits, as well as Pet Sitting, Dog Walking, Doggy Day Care, House Sitting, Grooming, Training, and Pet Taxis.
This article has been reviewed by Dr Noel Morrison who is a Medical Practitioner in Northern NSW.