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Animal-Assisted Therapy

Volunteer pets lend a helping paw

By Jason A. Heidemann

Animals and children have always shared a special bond. In some situations, animals are able to get through to children in a way that no adult or other person can. Watching the interactions between kids and pets can be magical.

Take “Julie,” a little girl who came to The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago two years ago after being seriously injured in a car accident that claimed the life of her sister. At the time, she was unable to talk, walk, or unclench her hands. One day, while she was in therapy, she was approached by Tag and his guardian Mary Ann Alexander, volunteers with a local organization called Chenny Troupe. Tag’s arrival brought a smile to Julie’s face. That smile marked the beginning of a remarkable period of recovery for Julie. By her last session with Tag and Mary Ann, she got up from her wheelchair with minimal assistance and escorted the dog across the room. Her story is not uncommon. Across the Midwest and the entire country, dogs like Tag offer a world of help and support for physically, emotionally, and mentally disabled people. These animals and their guardians volunteer their time to restore the health and spirit of people in need. While hundreds of programs like this exist in the United States, many are designed specifically to fit the needs of children. The Chenny Troupe, for example, is a Chicago-based non-profit organization that works with canine volunteers and their guardians in eight medical facilities around the Chicagoland area. Three of them, including La Rabida Children’s Hospital, Illinois Center for Rehabilitation and Education, and Rice Child and Family Center, focus strictly on young people. At these facilities, Chenny Troupe offers a wide variety of programs within the context of a group setting designed to meet the client’s specific needs. Physically disabled children may have a wide range of health issues depending on their disability. The dog might spend an hour with a child tossing a Frisbee to improve hand/eye coordination, standing balance, and grasping/releasing. Similarly, a grooming session can provide small motor skill improvement and provide tactile stimulation.

Emotionally abused children thrive in a seven-week curriculum. Each class has a specific life lesson attached to it and children learn responsibility and trust. The presence of the dog is beneficial in a variety of ways. According to executive director Janet Eaton, “It provides immediate positive reinforcement when the child gives a command and the dog responds. It encourages physical activity with a distraction from pain. Children learn to use kind words and gentle touch to get what they want rather than violence or anger, and learn to model good behavior, social skills, and communication skills. Abused children can relearn trust and caring and believe that they themselves are deserving of love.” At Paws and Think, an Indianapolis-based organization, a win-win situation is created by teaching at-risk youths how to train shelter dogs basic obedience skills so they can become more adoptable, thus preventing euthanasia. The students think it’s all about the dog, but they in turn learn valuable life skills such as responsibility, anger management, leadership, and trust. “It provides structure in a fun, non-traditional way,” says program director Gayle Hutchens. “Students learn many life-skills through their role as leader and teacher.” They also work with counseling programs to offer individualized therapy for kids that respond well to animal contact. For example, “animals interact with autistic children in classrooms to improve learning and relationships through sensory stimulation,” Hutchens says. At Sit, Stay, Read! a literacy program for inner-city students in Chicago, canine volunteers join children in a classroom setting to facilitate better reading skills. This program breaks up classrooms into small groups where children take turn reading to each other and rotate alone time with just a volunteer and their dog. During this alone time children are free to express themselves easily because they know the dogs are non-judgmental. “We know how huge of an impact the dogs are having,” says founder Mary Ellen Schneider, “because kids get excited about reading so their whole feeling towards it changes.” In the first year of the program alone, 451 children were served over the course of 1,084 sessions. One hundred percent of the teachers involved rated the program as excellent.

Innovative programs like these are no longer new. The origins of animal assisted therapy date back to the late seventies and the formation of the Delta Foundation in Portland, Oregon. Over the years their research uncovered a link between pet guardianship and positive well-being which eventually led to the notion that animal companionship might assist people who were physically, mentally, and emotionally disabled or traumatized by an accident. Today, the Delta Society (as it’s now called) has put their emphasis on standards-based training materials and most animal-assisted therapy organizations are based on models set in motion by this pioneer organization.

The success of animal therapy is based on the formula that animals provide a conduit through which program members and/or health care professionals can reach the child. There’s much less self-consciousness for the patient when working with an animal that holds no judgment against him. “Think back to your own experience…as an adult how difficult it is to get up in front of a group of people and trying to do something that you’re not great at, it’s really scary,” says Schneider. The inhibition that a student with poor reading skills for example, may feel while reading to his peers, melts away in the presence of the animal. “You’d think they’d been doing it all their lives,” she adds.

Eaton agrees. “The dogs motivate children to continue the long process of rehabilitation or of learning to live with a chronic disabling condition. The work enhances self-esteem and the sense that the child is in control of some aspect of their lives.” “Children who are physically challenged, stretch themselves farther because they focus on the animal and not themselves,” Hutchens adds. “Since [service] dogs naturally attract people to children with disabilities (it gives strangers something neutral to talk about with a child who has a physical disability), children with dogs are more socially integrated.” She also shares this story: “One teacher said, ‘I’ve been with “Jake” for eight months and have never seen this side of him before.’ She was referring to the student’s ability to let his guard down with his dog and show his tender, caring side rather than maintaining the image he worked so hard to present to his peers.” While dogs have become the poster pet of the animal assisted therapy movement, a number of other companion animals such as cats, rabbits, and horses have also served the needs of children as volunteers. Cats and rabbits with the right temperament can be soothing animals that offer a calming effect on young patients in a hospital setting. Schneider recalls working with cats in her volunteer days. “Cats are wonderful if you have the right one,” she says. “I remember several years ago a Main Coon that a woman had. This cat was just wonderful. He loved people, he was happy going different places and he really enjoyed the work.” Because rabbits can sit comfortably and quietly in a patient’s lap, they too have had much success as therapy animals. Rabbit volunteers for the American Red Cross even have their own staff I.D. cards! In 1987, the Delta Society sponsored development of the first hippo therapy curriculum in the United States to train physical and occupational therapists to treat people with movement disorders with the help of a horse (“hippos” is the Greek word for horse). In addition to the calming effect a horse can have on his rider, children with physical disabilities often learn proper riding techniques like posture, balance, coordination, and strength which facilitate rehabilitation.

As long as an animal is domesticated she can be a part of an AAT program and rats, parrots, guinea pigs, goats, llamas, pigs, donkeys, reptiles and even chickens have all been service animals. “We have a chicken in our group of volunteers,” Hutchens says. “The hen thinks she’s a dog! She loves people and the attention she gets!” Christopher Bergman, director of AAT at the San Francisco SPCA, also knows this. “We use reptiles including a bearded dragon from Australia that is popular with children, rats, chinchillas…you name it. The interaction is different than with a dog because of the direct response a dog gives. But these animals lower blood pressure and heart rate, and offer a distraction from the medical nightmare the child is going through.” Every day animals of all shapes and stripes are involved in animal-assisted therapy. The difference they make in the life of a child can be extraordinary. “[They] don’t see the disability, the disfigurement, the problems,” Eaton says. “They see someone who needs attention and for a treat they are happy to give it!”

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