“Animals are such agreeable friends − they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.”
These words once spoken by the Victorian writer George Eliot are universally accepted and the truth of it is at the root of a form or therapy that is fast gaining acceptance and prominence: animal-assisted therapy.
What is animal-assisted therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy, or AAT, is a therapeutic intervention where an animal that meets specified criteria is included as a major part of the treatment process. A professional therapist identifies goals for treatment and finds ways of using the animal as a tool to help achieve those goals. The therapy is planned, structured and evaluated throughout.
The goals of therapy can be legion: from dealing with anger issues, coping with attachment, to rehabilitation and physical therapy, occupational therapy, counselling, and the development of social and life skills.
Animals used in therapy
The first animal that comes to mind in animal-assisted therapy is horses, a growing specialist field within AAT referred to as equine-assisted therapy (EAT). Horse-riding is widely used as a therapy for people with physical disabilities and is also increasingly used in programmes to build confidence. EAT is not limited to riding as, for example, the practice of grooming a horse can be included in a programme to develop motor skills.
The special bond between man and dog can be exploited very successfully in therapy. Dogs’ innate ability to interact and empathise with people can be of great benefit to people who are having emotional difficulties and provide a safe relationship that allows them to open up.
Dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) is quite popular and believed to be most beneficial for people with neurological disorders such as depression and phobias, although reducing stress and improving overall emotional health are the main targets of DAT.
Many other animals can also be used in AAT, including cats, rabbits, birds, fish and even donkeys, who because of their smaller size and gentler nature seem to be less threatening than horses in EAT.