Some of the world’s best ideas happen by accident – as did the creation of animal-assisted therapy (AAT). In the 1950s, psychologist Boris Levinson discovered that his dog, Jingles, was able to engage a child with autism in a way that humans had not been able to. Since that time, the theory and practice of using animals in therapeutic ways has grown and a substantial body of research has documented the health benefits unique to the human-animal bond.
The Delta Society is an organization dedicated to improving people’s lives through positive interactions with animals. The society trains dogs, the most frequently used therapy animals, but also trains cats, birds, reptiles, and more. According to their research, when people hold or stroke an animal, their blood pressure lowers, their ability to be more extroverted and verbal increases, and the individual reports a decreased sense of loneliness and an increase in self-esteem. Another organization, the Equine Assisted Growth & Learning Association (EAGALA), focuses specifically on how horses and humans work together to improve mental health.
The benefits of animal-assisted therapy have been documented through studies with many different groups, from children with pervasive developmental disorders to senior citizens in assisted living situations. Studies have even gone so far as to say that statistics show that individuals exposed to AAT in psychiatric rehabilitation settings exhibit better outcomes than those in a control group that did not have the benefit of AAT, with the AAT group scoring higher on interaction, sociability, and responsiveness to surroundings. EAGALA has found that equine-assisted therapy has been helpful with at-risk youth, military, veteran, and trauma populations.
Do you use animals in your practice? How have they helped your clients?