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What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Guest AuthorDaniella San Martin-Feeney is the Program Coordinator for Chimo Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). Chimo AAT is a non-profit initiative based in Edmonton, Canada, which facilitates the implementation of AAT programs in health and social service facilities, as well as schools.  Their focus is on mental health, and their mission is to facilitate the use of animals to help those in need.

Murphy - certified therapy dog

If you’re like most people, even if you’ve heard the term animal assisted therapy (AAT), you’re not entirely sure what it entails.  You know there is an animal or many animals involved, and you assume there must be some kind of therapy!  Well, hopefully this post clears up some of the unknowns for you.

AAT is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is an integral part of the treatment process.  A therapist who utilizes AAT operates from their professional foundation and facilitates change in a client through the client’s interactions with an animal. AAT differs from other forms of therapy with animals in that AAT is the most clinical of all therapeutic interventions with an animal.  Clients have specific goals set by the therapists, and the outcomes of AAT are measured by the therapist.

Other forms of therapeutic interactions between humans and animals include pet visitation and animal assisted activities (AAA).  Pet visitation allows for informal interaction between animals and clients, however no goals are set and no specific outcomes are expected.  AAA involves the intentional use of companion animals to provide opportunities for motivational, recreational and educational benefits.  Again, there are no set goals for clients participating in AAA.

AAT, AAA and pet visitation all have numerous therapeutic benefits.  There are however, differences between them.  A single client may enjoy the benefits of different types of interactions with animals.  For example, a client may have the chance to cuddle a cat through a pet visitation program.  The visit with the cat makes the client happy, and even helps to relieve some stress.  Later that day, the same client may work with psychologist who is using AAT.  The psychologist may use a dog’s behavior or perceived feelings as an analogy for the client’s behavior, or feelings.  In this way, observing and interacting with a dog may bring about insight about a client’s self, and help the client to progress in their therapy.  In an AAT setting, the therapist is documenting the client’s progress.  Both pet visitation and AAT interactions with animals are beneficial to the client, in different ways.

AAT is used by many different professionals including psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech language pathologists, nurses, recreation therapists, teachers, counselors, and other therapists.    It can take place in a variety of settings, from the typical office setting, to a ranch off the beaten path!

Many different types of animals are appropriate for use in AAT.  In urban settings, we most often see dogs, and less frequently, cats.  A popular sub-field of AAT is equine assisted therapy, or equine assisted counseling.  This almost always takes place on a farm or ranch.  Of course, many ranches used as counseling centers are home to many helping critters, and even small animals such as rabbits and birds can be highly effective helpers in therapy.

I hope this helps give you a clearer picture of what AAT is.  Did it help?  Do you have other burning questions about AAT?

Be sure to watch for Daniella  AAT case studies that feature three of her certified therapy dogs: Murphy (pictured above), Marley and Donovan.

Visit Daniella at Chimo Animal Assisted Therapy web page: www.chimoproject.ca.

Check our her blog at: http://chimoaat.wordpress.com/.


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