One of our staff members, Rachel Bauder, offers Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), which has a wide variety of benefits. We are often asked about the benefits of animal assisted therapy for children and teens. Below is information on the benefits of AAT with children and teens.
Animal Assisted Therapy and Kids
Developmental psychology demonstrates that children are naturally drawn to animals. They read books about them, collect stuffed animals, talk about them, and even dream about them (VanFleet and Faa-Thomason, 2010). There are many positive benefits to nurturing the bond between a child and an animal that aids greatly in the development of a child (Akrow, n.d., via Fine, 2010; Thomson, 2009). On average, children with a pet in the home are more empathetic, have higher self-esteem, and better social skills than children without a pet. Children learn about appropriate boundaries, social interactions, responsibility, and emotional reciprocity, all through interacting with an animal (Thompson, 2009).
Studies show that humane education programs help delinquent, academically challenged, and at-risk youth. Often abused and traumatized children have been let down by the adults in their lives and they develop a closer connection with animals (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2009). Young children might need even know the words to describe their abuse. On the other hand, they may be able to vocalize their abuse, but may not want to speak of the horrors they have endured (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2009). Dogs, unlike most people, do not need verbal language. They can nurture a child in his/her darkest moments without needing anything in return. While a counselor may be able to offer some non-verbal empathy he/she is unable to hug a child who has been abused, but a dog can offer physical comfort. Even if the counselor were allowed to show physical affection to a client, the client may not want this. After all, the child has learned not to trust people. The cold nose and warm kiss of a dog may be the perfect medicine, as pets can satisfy his/her needs for social, emotional, psychological, and physical contact without fear of negative attention from humans (Becker, 2002).
The presence of an animal in therapy is beneficial for numerous reasons. First, interacting with dogs has been shown to improve confidence and social skills in children, while also raising their self-esteem (Thompson, 2009). The self-efficacy of children increases as they learn how to handle and train dogs using positive reinforcement. Simultaneously, maladaptive and aggressive behaviors lessen (Thompson, 2009).
Second, the presence of an animal in a therapeutic environment helps the therapist to seem less threatening and friendlier. Dogs act as a social lubricant, and as a result, the therapist also has an easier time building rapport and trust (VanFleet and Faa-Thomason 2010). This is extremely important considering that the child/adolescent may already have a fear of adults (Akrow, n.d., via Fine, 2010; Thompson, 2009).
Third, healthy attachments increase, not only with the dog, but also with people. By interacting with an animal, children can learn healthy relationship behavior (VanFleet and Faa-Thomason 2010). Usually, they learn to trust the animal before they can trust a person. The reason that children are able to apply adaptive relationship patterns from animals to people is because the qualities in healthy human-animal relationships are similar to human-human relationships. As an example, both involve give-and-take, understanding body language, and considering one’s needs and desires (VanFleet and Faa-Thomason 2010).
Fourth, children’s’ empathy levels have been found to increase through Canine-Assisted Therapy (Thompson, 2009). When children develop humane attitudes towards animals, they often then generalize to humans (Ascione and Arkow, 1999). Fifth, children are able to share their traumatic events in a safe way because dogs offer unconditional acceptance and nurturance. They do not label or judge (Thompson, 2009). In one study, children and adolescents, at risk for behavioral and antisocial disorders, interacted with an unfamiliar dog (Akrow, n.d., via Fine, 2010). After only five minutes of contact, 84% said that they would confide secrets in the dog and 76% stated that the dog knew how they felt. In addition, another study of abused children in foster care illustrated that children opened up in a presence of a dog. They laughed, engaged in conversation, and were excitable, when they had previously been hostile and withdrawn (Thompson, 2009).
Finally, working with animals has been demonstrated to improve cooperation and problem solving ability (Thompson, 2009). Many at-risk youth frequently feel anxious, depressed, hyperactive, and isolated. Therapeutic work with animals helps to resolve many of these feelings. As an example, working with dogs can be frustrating, but rewarding. The children learn how to clicker-train a dog to do tricks, but sometimes the dog is stubborn or tired and does not listen. When the dogs do not behave in the way that the child expects, the child learns to adjust his/her expectations and behavior (Ascione and Arkow, 1999). This requires the child to communicate both verbally and non-verbally with the animal and often work as a team. The child therefore, not only learns how to focus and modulate his/her emotions, but also may build friendships with their peers when training the dogs.
Arkow, P. (n.d.) Animal-assisted interventions and humane education: opportunities for a more
targeted focus. In A. Fine (Ed.), (2010). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Ascione, F.R., and Arkow, P. (Eds.), (1999). Child Abuse, Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse: Linking the Circles of Compassion for Prevention and Intervention. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
Becker, M. (2002). The healing power of pets. New York: Hyperion.
Hart, L. A. (n.d.). Positive effects of animals for psychosocially vulnerable people. In A. Fine
(Ed.), (2010). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Kirst-Ashman, K. & Hull, G. (2012). Understanding generalist practice. (6th ed.) Chicago, IL:
Kruger, K.A. and Serpell, J. A (n.d.). Animal-assisted interventions in mental health: definitions
and theoretical foundations. In A. Fine (Ed.), (2010). Handbook on animal-assisted
therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. San Diego, CA: Academic
Phillips, A., and McQuarrie, D. (2009). Therapy Animals Supporting Kids (TASK) Program:
Program Manual. Englewood, CO: American Humane Education.
Thompson, M. J. (2009). Animal-assisted play therapy: Canines as co-therapists. In G. R.
Waltz, J. C. Bleuer, and R. K. Yep (Eds), Compelling counseling interventions: VISTAS 2009 (pp. 199-209). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
VanFleet, R. and Faa-Thomason, T. (2010). The case for using animal-assisted play therapy. Bri
Journal of Play Therapy, Vol. 6, pp. 4-18.
Wash, F. (2009). Human-animal bonds 1: The relational significance of companion animals.
Family Process, 48, No. 4, 462-480.
W. K. Kellogg Foundation. (2004). Using logic models to bring together planning, evaluation, and action: Logic model development guide. Retrieved from http://www.wkkf.org/knowledge-center/resources/2006/02/WK-Kellogg-Foundation- Logic-Model-Development-Guide.aspx
Yorke, J. (2010). The significance of human-animal relationships as modulators of trauma effects in children: a developmental neurobiological perspective. Early Child Development and Care, 180. No. 5, 559-570.