Did you know that just by being next to your pets your cortisol levels (stress hormone) can decrease – reducing your anxiety and stress? And that the presence of animals, specially their own pets develops feelings of affection and empathy in humans? This has been shown to increase the levels of oxytocin in our body leading us to a more relaxed state (see Biophilia hypothesis).
This is why Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is growing in credibility as a complement to conventional therapies, making people more available and cooperative during therapy sessions.
But what is Animal Assisted Therapy?
AAT is one of the forms of Animal Assisted Interventions (along with Animal Assisted Activities and Animal Assisted Education). AAT aims to promote physical, social, emotional and cognitive development from its participants. Usually the sessions are held by healthcare professionals and have specific goals according to each patient. The animal is a key part of the therapeutic process and have specific training and characteristics for the purpose of the therapy. The therapist promotes animal/patient interactions, monitoring evolution and results. It is important that both animals and therapists alike are trained and certified for this kind of therapy.
The most common therapy animals are dogs, horses and donkeys. Due to their amazing qualities, Dog Assisted Therapy (DAT) is the most popular nowadays.
Dogs generally draw the patient’s attention, providing combined multisensory stimuli. DAT is an important complement in all the therapeutical and educational process. Being very social animals, there is a natural connection between the participants which enables socialization, participation and sharing moments. The dog’s presence in the session also leads to a more relaxed, stress free, less anxious state. This has numerous benefits for the patient’s health and well being. Besides all these benefits, during the human-dog interaction you will see enhanced emotional, social and intellectual skills that are crucial to a perfect development. during these sessions the patients will have improved: expression of feelings, communication skills, social interaction and larger engagement with the therapeutic process. Improvements have been noticed on a motor level, not only in mobility and physical activities (like taking the dog on a walk), but also in the patient’s movements through object handling and pet care moments (brushing, playing and giving treats).
Due to their caring nature, dogs promote engagement and act as mediators improving the patient/therapist relationship. The mere presence of the therapy animal serves the purpose of making patients more cooperative. In the long-term, the generalization of the behaviours created during the sessions will extravasate to their daily lives.
Animal Assisted Therapy is appropriate for all ages, being considered multidisciplinar. Its wide scope allows for it to be used in prevention as well as rehabilitation, both in physical and mental therapy.
Currently, we have seen numerous scientific studies on Dog Assisted Therapy proving its efficiency in development and learning disorders, mental health disorders, elderly population (living in senior homes), among others.
Sara Teixeira, Psychomotor Therapist and Animal Assisted Technician