There are numerous benefits to incorporating pets into human therapeutic work and other interventions such as activity-assisted activities. These benefits can extend to the clients/service users, the person or volunteer who is the animal handler, the therapist and also to the animal.
- Physical – eg an occupational therapist might include a dog in the treatment plan to work towards increasing a patient’s fine motor skills. One exercise might be bending down, holding a brush and brushing the dog’s coat. The dog helps to increase the patient’s enjoyment and thereby also increases motivation and effort in reaching treatment goals
- Psychological – animals can be included in mental health treatment plans to increase self-esteem and self-confidence; help with loss and grief and assist with the development of empathy. AAI can also enhance mood in stressful settings, eg one study reported that pet therapy significantly enhanced the mood of children in a paediatric hospital
- Social – animals can act as a social lubricant and help clients adjust to a new setting or unexpected change in circumstances by facilitating conversations and laughter. A recent study, part-funded by SCAS, shows how guinea pigs as classroom pets affect the social behaviours of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their typically-developing classmates. For further information on the subject of pets and autism, you can download a recent SCAS Journal article that gives an overview of the benefits of companion animals for children with autism.
Benefits to the volunteer or animal handler may include:
- Spending more quality time with their pet
- Participation in rewarding work which can contribute to the health and well-being of others
- Expending knowledge on animal training techniques
For the therapist, including animals in their work offers them another approach to consider when working with clients with specific goals where animals may be a great facilitator in meeting these goals. This can often complement their existing models and can be very rewarding.
One of the considerations in delivering any AAI programme is the effect on the animals involved. For programmes that are carefully planned and where the animal’s welfare needs are always tended to, AAI work can provide a stimulating activity and outlet for energy and intelligence. The animal gets to spend more time with its owner and due to the rigorous training and health requirements for AAI, the animal can benefit from better health.