Animal-Assisted Therapy

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a form of therapy that involves the use of trained animals to provide comfort,  companionship, and support to people with mental, physical, or emotional health issues. AAT can be administered by a trained therapist, and typically involves the use of dogs, cats, horses, or other animals that are trained to work with people in a therapeutic setting. Havenwood Academy utilizes AAT for all of their students and sees daily impact and progress with all of our girls.

The goal of animal-assisted therapy is to improve the patient's overall wellbeing by helping to reduce stress and anxiety, improve social skills and communication, increase physical activity, and enhance overall quality of life. Animal-assisted therapy works by promoting the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with positive emotions, which can help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Additionally, spending time with a therapy animal can help to increase social interaction, improve communication skills, and provide a sense of purpose and meaning.

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How does Animal-Assisted Therapy work?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) works by harnessing the natural bond that exists between humans and animals. Therapy animals are specially trained to work with people in a therapeutic setting, and they can help to reduce stress and anxiety, improve social skills and communication, increase physical activity, and enhance overall quality of life. The presence of a therapy animal can help to promote the release of oxytocin, a hormone that creates positive emotions, which can help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

Additionally, spending time with a therapy animal can help to increase social interaction, improve communication skills, and provide a sense of purpose and meaning. AAT can be administered by a trained therapist and typically involves the use of dogs, cats, horses, or other animals that are trained to work with people in a therapeutic setting.

The specific techniques used in animal-assisted therapy vary depending on the patient's individual needs and the specific animal being used. In some cases, therapy animals may simply be present in the room with the patient, providing comfort and companionship. In other cases, therapy animals may be used to perform specific tasks, such as guiding a patient through a physical therapy exercise or assisting with communication exercises. 

In all cases, the goal of animal-assisted therapy is to help patients feel more relaxed, comfortable, and engaged, and to provide a supportive and nurturing environment that can help to improve overall well being. Havenwood Academy conducts Animal-Assisted Therapy with students in each classroom and house. We have the teenage girls help take care of hedgehogs, guinea pigs, chickens, and goats in addition to interacting with them to regulate their emotions.

What animals are commonly used in Animal-Assisted Therapy?

There are many animals to choose from for AAT, but as a person works with their recovery team to choose, they may find that certain types of animals are best for certain situations. Animals available usually include:

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  • Hedgehogs: Hedgehogs are cute, small, and cuddly when they’re in a loving environment. They’re great because they’re small and easy to look after. Most importantly, they only respond openly when a caregiver is relaxed and regulated. This hedgehog trait forces clients to work on their emotional state in order to make themselves safe for the hedgehog. It trains the handler to be calm..
  • Dogs: Therapy dogs are widely used in AAT due to their friendly and social nature. They can provide comfort, companionship, and emotional support to patients with mental health issues or physical disabilities. They are also commonly used in hospital settings to help reduce stress and anxiety among patients.
  • Horses: Equine-assisted therapy is a specialized form of AAT that uses horses to promote physical, emotional, and cognitive healing. Horses are known for their calm and gentle nature, and they can help patients with physical disabilities, mental health issues, or trauma-related conditions.
  • Birds: Some AAT programs use birds, such as parrots or canaries, to provide companionship and support to patients. Birds are known for their social nature and can help patients who may be isolated or lonely.
  • Cats: Cats are also used in AAT and are known for their calming and comforting presence. They can help reduce anxiety and stress, and provide a sense of companionship and connection.

Other animals that may be used in AAT include rabbits, guinea pigs, and even dolphins. The specific animal used in AAT will depend on the patient's needs and the goals of the therapy program. Trained animal handlers or therapists will work with patients and their families to select the best animal for their specific situation.

At Havenwood Academy, we have quite the assortment of animals, including hedgehogs, dogs, guinea pigs, goats, chickens, bunnies, and horses. Havenwood students love their animals and hope to add more to the family.

Can you have your own therapy animal?

Animals used for AAT are often not trained as professional therapy animals. For example, a guide dog undergoes specialized training to be used as a guide dog. Most animals that participate in AAP are not trained and it’s important to remember that there are limits for animals as far as where they can go and what they can do.

If you are considering a therapy animal or pet, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons, and work out what kind of animal you and your family can properly care for. If, upon your self-assessment, you find you can’t care for an animal long-term, find a place that allows for visitation with animals, or where you can volunteer to provide care. 

Havenwood Academy currently has a therapist who regularly brings in their own therapy dog to interact with students. The teens girls love to see him! It is a really cool experience to have a personal therapy animal come into our school and homes often.

Who is Animal-Assisted Therapy for?

Animal assisted therapy (AAT) can benefit a wide range of people with mental, physical, or emotional health issues. AAT is often used to treat conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, chronic pain, and physical disabilities. It can also be used to help people with developmental or learning disabilities, such as autism or Down Syndrome. Additionally, AAT can benefit people who are struggling with addiction or recovering from a traumatic event.

AAT is appropriate for people of all ages, from young children to older adults. The specific type of animal used in AAT will depend on the patient's needs and the goals of the therapy program. For example, therapy dogs are commonly used with children who have autism or developmental disabilities, while therapy horses may be used to help people with physical disabilities or those recovering from trauma. 

AAT can be provided in a variety of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, schools, residential treatment centers, and community centers. The therapy animals can be used in group or individual therapy sessions, and can provide a range of physical and emotional benefits to patients.

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Havenwood Academy regularly uses AAT. Though Animal-Assisted Therapy can benefit any age, teenagers especially connect to animals when they’ve experienced high amounts of childhood trauma. Many of the students were never taught how to form safe relationships and healthy attachments. Animals are the first step in helping troubled teen girls learn connections that they can then apply to building relationships with Havenwood’s trained staff mentors.

What conditions does Animal-Assisted Therapy treat?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can help treat a wide range of mental, physical, and emotional health issues. Some of the conditions that AAT can help treat include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
  • Substance abuse
  • Chronic pain
  • Stroke recovery
  • Physical disabilities
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Alzheimer's disease and dementia
  • Terminal illness
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

In the case of depression, animal-assisted therapy can help to reduce feelings of sadness and loneliness, and increase feelings of happiness and comfort. For people with anxiety or PTSD, spending time with a therapy animal can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and promote a sense of safety and security. With autism, animal-assisted therapy can help to improve social skills and communication, and reduce feelings of isolation.

Havenwood Academy’s students typically have high amounts of trauma and see a heavy impact on their mental and emotional health. Many of Havenwood’s teen girls have these conditions in addition to suffering in school, showing violent behavior to others and themselves, and failing to make and keep relationships. Havenwood Academy treats each student with AAT and frequently sees an impressive impact.

What are the benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal assisted therapy (AAT) can provide a range of physical, emotional, and social benefits to patients, including:

  • Reduced anxiety and stress
  • Improved mood and emotional well-being
  • Increased self-esteem and confidence
  • Improved social interaction and communication skills
  • Reduced symptoms of depression and loneliness
  • Improved physical mobility and coordination
  • Reduced pain and discomfort
  • Increased motivation and engagement in therapy
  • Improved cognitive functioning and memory
  • Increased sense of purpose and meaning in life

The specific benefits of AAT will depend on the patient's needs and the goals of the therapy program. Havenwood Academy strives for each of their students to see benefits in Animal-Assisted Therapy.

What are the downfalls of Animal-Assisted Therapy?

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While animal assisted therapy (AAT) can provide a range of physical, emotional, and social benefits to patients, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider, including:

  • Allergies: Some patients may be allergic to certain types of animals, which can make AAT difficult or impossible.
  • Animal behavior: Therapy animals are specially trained, but they are still animals and may behave unpredictably at times. This can potentially lead to injury or discomfort for patients.
  • Cost: The cost of AAT can be high, as it requires specialized training for both the animals and the handlers. This can make it difficult for some patients to access these types of therapy programs.
  • Availability: AAT may not be available in all areas, or may only be available in certain settings, such as hospitals or nursing homes.

It is important for patients and their families to carefully consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of AAT before deciding to pursue this type of therapy. Havenwood Academy makes sure each of their students and animals are safe when utilizing Animal-Assisted Therapy. When either is in danger of being harmed in any way, Havenwood utilizes other forms of therapy instead.

Case Studies of Animal-Assisted Therapy

The history of animal assisted therapy (AAT) can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where animals were used for healing purposes. The ancient Greeks and Romans recognized the healing powers of animals and believed that they could be used to treat a range of physical and emotional health issues.

In modern times, the use of animals in therapy gained popularity in the mid-20th century, particularly in the field of psychotherapy. One of the earliest pioneers of AAT was Boris Levinson, a child psychologist who discovered the therapeutic benefits of his dog, Jingles, during therapy sessions with children. Levinson noticed that Jingles helped to reduce anxiety and promote communication and social interaction with his patients.

Following Levinson's work, other healthcare providers began to explore the use of animals in therapy, particularly with children and older adults. The American Humane Association was one of the first organizations to formalize AAT programs in hospitals and nursing homes, and in the 1970s, the Delta Society was founded to promote the use of therapy animals in healthcare settings.

Today, AAT has become a widely recognized form of therapy, and is used in a variety of healthcare and educational settings. The specific types of animals used in therapy have expanded beyond dogs to include cats, horses, birds, and even llamas and alpacas. Researchers continue to study the effectiveness of AAT, and are exploring new ways to use animals to support the physical, emotional, and social well-being of patients.

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If you are a teenage girl who has experienced trauma and is seeking effective and compassionate treatment, Havenwood Academy's animal-assisted therapy program can be a powerful tool for healing and personal growth. Our experienced therapists work with a variety of animals, including horses, dogs, and hedgehogs, to help our clients develop emotional regulation, social skills, and a sense of responsibility and purpose. If you are interested in learning more about our animal-assisted therapy program, or any of the other services we offer, we invite you to contact Havenwood Academy today. Our compassionate and knowledgeable staff is available to answer your questions and help you take the first step toward healing and growth.

If you are unsure if Animal-Assisted Therapy can help you or a family member, take our online assessment. Receive a reply within minutes to learn if we or another facility can help you.

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References

Jones, M. G., Rice, S. M., & Cotton, S. M. (2019, January 17). Incorporating animal-assisted therapy in mental health treatments for adolescents: A systematic review of canine assisted psychotherapy. PloS one. Retrieved February 21, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6336278/