Animal-Assisted Therapy: Its Benefits and Procedure

Animal-Assisted Therapy

The strong notion that human well-being is enhanced by relationships with animals has led to the development of several interventions of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT). Animal-assisted therapy has increased despite having poor scientific data and weak research, mostly due to anecdotal results. Medical professionals from a wide range of specialties have developed a deep fascination with the therapeutic functions that animals perform in the lives of their patients. Some people’s therapeutic interests are motivated by their personal beliefs and connection to animals, while others are motivated by the idea that animals could offer a helpful substitute for clinical application (Fine, 2015).

For example, dogs have been considered designed to live alongside humans and have performed a variety of tasks, such as herding, protecting, hunting, fishing, as well as being our best friends (Clutton-Brock, 1995). According to Horowitz (2009), dogs are naturally good at interacting with us because they can read our faces for important cues, instruction, and confidence. These characteristics help them interact. Dogs are essentially great observers of our responses.

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According to Beck and Katcher (2003), there is still a need to raise awareness of the significance of interactions between humans and animals as well as to thoroughly investigate the nature of these relationships. However, there has been some progress in determining the psychological and physiological advantages that animals provide to our existence.

How Does Animal Assisted Therapy Work?

As mentioned, animal-assisted therapy is a therapeutic intervention that involves the role of animals in the therapeutic process. There is still a great deal to learn about the choice, instruction, handling, and maintenance of the animals used in animal-assisted treatments. When the first official animal-assisted therapy programs were established, the expectations for the animals used in this work underwent a significant shift.

In situations where it is clearly anticipated that a person will gain from their engagement in the therapeutic process, then so should the procedures for choosing, preparing, and integrating them. We are unable to choose the most suitable animal workers for the job when suppliers fail to clearly explain how and why animals are used as a treatment modality. Animals used in mental health applications should be chosen primarily on the basis of how well their abilities and skills match the tasks that they will be doing for and with the clients that they will be interacting with. Part of the reason why animal-assisted interventions are still regarded as unique is because of this lack of rigor (Parshall, 2003).

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Evolution of Standards in Animal-Assisted Interventions:

The volunteer who serves as the “animal handler,” the client or clients, the therapist, and the volunteer’s pet are frequently involved in animal-aided interventions. The concept of having a different person oversee the animal is founded on innovative initiatives where volunteers visit people in long-term care facilities with carefully chosen pets.

Currently, the standards for animals receiving therapy have evolved. Our procedures for choosing, preparing, and integrating them into work when there is a definite expectation that a person will gain from their participation in the therapeutic process should also follow this same logic. It is morally and professionally required for clinicians to have a deeper awareness of the capacities and habits of different species and breeds of animals than what is often learned from owning a pet if animals are to be used in mental health treatment.

Mental health practitioners can create programs that use carefully chosen animals in a more efficient four-step procedure as follows:

1) Identifying The Purpose of Animals in Practice:

While there is no doubt that they have the potential to improve client work, this potential is mostly based on matching the appropriate animal to the right client at the right time. To establish, preserve, or improve a therapeutic window, the clinician must have a high degree of clarity about what the animal is supposed to perform. Practitioners are guided in their thinking on how to incorporate animals into treatment to improve client results by using a “matrix of opportunity” (MacNamara & Moga, 2014).

This matrix helps clinicians consider their intent and theoretical framework when constructing an animal-assisted intervention strategy. Animals can serve as rapport aides or an interactional window to uncover client issues and system dynamics. They can be integrated into the treatment process as a reward to enhance motivation, a safe focus of conversation, or a vehicle for metaphor. Animals can also help clients develop new behaviors related to treatment goals, such as problem-solving or frustration tolerance. This approach helps clients develop a more flexible, prosocial, and immediately available behavioral toolkit.

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2) Classification and Methods of Animal Intervention:

Animals employed in AAT should be selected based on clinicians’ clear conceptualization of animal contact, treatment goals, and desired client interaction. The use of animals in interventions can be categorized as implicit, explicit, or instrumental.

When animals are present in the therapeutic setting, implicit interventions enable clients to watch or consider their presence. Instead of evaluating skills, these therapies frequently concentrate on behavioral traits or physical qualities. A complete assessment of the abilities and capabilities of the animal is necessary for any kind of animal assistance, but explicit assistance in particular. Animals like dogs, cats, or rabbits are used in these interventions—like mental health programs—to improve assessment, divert attention, and speed up the processing of sensory and cognitive information.

High levels of interaction between animals and clients are a feature of instrumental interventions, which offer sensory stimulation and healing moments. These therapies provide clients the chance to practice effective behaviors and explore new reactions, but they also carry a major risk to both clients and animals.

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3) Creating Work Descriptions for Animals:

A working animal job description can be used to specify the skills required for goal-specific client interventions more precisely, just as job descriptions help identify the knowledge, training, and attitudes thought necessary to lead and assess a successful human staff member. Stated differently, clinicians may identify the optimal match between an animal and a client based on the latter’s evolving requirements and therapeutic goals by taking into account particular factors on the expected interactions between the two.

4) Model for Assessing Animal Capabilities MacNAMARA:

The MacNamara Animal Capability Assessment Model (MACAM) is a systematic and adaptable assessment model for mental health interventions. It identifies critical components of animal capability, allowing clinicians to create individualized job descriptions for working animals. The model accounts for contingencies of intervention delivery and specifies the “goodness of fit” between an animal and a mental health intervention method. It also outlines the duration, response, and type of client/animal contact.

Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy

For individuals with mental diseases, animal-assisted treatment offers several significant advantages as a complement to conventional therapies. Changes in personality, behavior, and physical health can be achieved in patients diagnosed with depression, autism, dementia, and schizophrenia by implementing this treatment. Patients’ social interactions as well as their cognitive, psychological, and emotional functioning are primarily impacted by these changes, which also appear to enhance their previously restricted abilities and capabilities brought on by the underlying illness. There is also the cultivation of new skills. Patients feel better about themselves and live better overall.

Also Read: The Psychology of Mirroring: Understanding the Chameleon Effect

The advantages of using animals in therapy include the prevention of negative symptoms brought on by mental illnesses as well as the development of positive behaviors, mostly related to the duties and activities of daily living on the part of the patients.

  • Koukouriskos, K., Georgopoulou, A., Kourkouta, L & Tsaloglidou, A. (2019). Benefits of animal assisted therapy in mental health. International Journal of Caring Sciences.12:3.
  • Fine, A. H. (2015). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy foundations and guidelines for animal-assisted interventions (4thed). Department of Education California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, CA, USA. 3-4, 91-96.

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