12,000 years ago, a human skeleton holding a puppy was found in Israel. Sometimes, our furry friends bring out more than a human can. At times, individuals quite literally pet their problems away. 

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a type of therapy that involves the use of trained animals to provide emotional support and therapeutic benefits to people suffering from various mental health conditions. The purpose of AAT is to improve the emotional, social, and cognitive functioning of individuals, by using animals as a tool to engage and motivate them. AAT can be used in a variety of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and mental health clinics. It is commonly used to treat individuals with anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD, and autism spectrum disorder. During AAT sessions, trained animals, such as dogs, cats, horses, and even dolphins, are introduced to the individual receiving therapy. The animal and therapist work together to create a safe and supportive environment, where the individual can interact with the animal in a non-judgmental and non-threatening way. This interaction can help reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-esteem and confidence, and improve social skills.


Animal-assisted Intervention is a goal-oriented intervention that intentionally includes or incorporates animals in health, education and human service for the purpose of therapeutic gains in humans


Animals and humans have existed in therapeutic relationships with each other for more than 12,000 years. In 1790 in York, England, rabbits and chickens were used in therapies with mentally ill patients learning self-control. During the 1830s, the British charity commissioner recommended that mental institutions have animals on the grounds to create a more pleasing and less prison-like atmosphere. Florence Nightingale observed that a small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick, especially for chronic cases. In 1867, epilepsy patients at Bethel in Bielefield, West Germany had farm animals and horses incorporated into their treatment plans. In 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps Convalescent Hospital in Pawling, New York considered working with farm animals restful for some patients in comparison to traditional medical treatment. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s Committee on the Human-Animal Bond defines the human-animal bond as, “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviours that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, other animals, and the environment“.

AAT is a goal-oriented, planned, and structured therapeutic intervention directed and/or delivered by health, education, and human service professionals. Intervention progress is measured and included in professional documentation. AAT is delivered and/or directed by a formally trained professional with expertise within the scope of the professional’s practice. AAT focuses on enhancing the physical, cognitive, behavioural and/or socio-emotional functioning of the particular human client.


The power of AAT is so high, that Dr Boris Levinson, a renowned psychologist, incorporated his dog, Jingles, in the treatment plan of an adolescent and then discussed his findings in a published paper titled “The Dog as the Co-therapist.”

Imagine the possible wonders one could achieve if one were to combine AAT and Physical Therapy! A case study conducted by Caitlin Denzer et al describes the use of AAT in combination with physical therapy in the treatment of a middle-aged female status-post spinal surgery. This patient did demonstrate motivation to participate and complete repetitions of activities when engaged in AAT. After the introduction of AAT through the use of a facility dog, the patient demonstrated a decrease in symptomatic episodes during the incorporation of the therapy dog into her treatments. This patient was treated with standard-of-care physical and occupational therapy in an in-patient rehabilitation facility with the addition of AAT within 32% of the therapy sessions. AAT sessions focused on sitting and standing tolerance, standing balance, endurance, ambulation, stair negotiation and kitchen mobility. The patient exhibited signs of motivation and increased levels of participation in the presence of the therapy dog. 


Dilek Tunkey et al conducted a study on Dog-Assisted Therapies and Activities in Rehabilitation of Children with Cerebral Palsy and Physical and Mental Disabilities. Visual analysis revealed that occupational and physical therapy with a therapy dog increased children’s social adjustment and adaptation to the therapy process. At the end of therapy, improvements or disappearances of temper tantrums; improvements in focusing on something by playing games, in selection ability, in independent behaviours, in decision making, in attention; increases in awareness, communication desire, being sensitive of surroundings, being happy, and improvements in behaviours and moods were observed. Overall, the therapy dog created a more enjoyable, safe and stress-free therapy environment for all individuals, particularly for the patients and therapists who participated in the current study. 

One of the biggest barriers to physical therapy is participation limitation, and AAT has the capability to remove that almost completely. AAT has been shown to have a positive impact on the mental health and well-being of individuals. It provides a unique and powerful tool for therapists to use in helping individuals to overcome their challenges and improve their quality of life. The use of animals in therapy provides a unique and non-judgmental way for individuals to connect with another living being and can help create a sense of comfort and safety. While there is still much to learn about the mechanisms behind animal-assisted therapy, it is clear that this type of therapy can be a valuable addition to traditional therapeutic approaches. As more research is conducted, it is likely that animal-assisted therapy will become even more widely accepted and utilized in mental health treatment.


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