Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a psychotherapy treatment based upon building a bond with an animal through interaction and play. Due to its flexible and customizable nature, AAT is suitable for both adults and children with almost any kind of disability, mental illness, autism spectrum disorder, or chronic illness. It can also be effective in addiction recovery, and for patients who would otherwise benefit from the emotional support an animal can offer.
Interaction with animals can provide a sense of peace, purpose, companionship, and love. Advocates of animal-assisted therapy say developing a bond with an animal also promotes self-worth, self-esteem, and trust. Depending on the patient's needs and treatment goals, AAT may involve adopting a pet to live at home, taking part in a community therapy animal program, or visiting a facility in which therapy animals live. this can also often provide an opportunity for patients to get out and about, socialise with peers, and even take part in gentle exercise.
Where Can Therapy Take Place?
Animal-assisted therapy can take place in almost any setting that best suits the patient's needs, including hospitals, schools, and even prisons. However, it is a much deeper and more complex process than spending time with an animal, and should follow a treatment plan and a set of goals as determined by an experienced professional.
While there are many kinds of therapy animals, only accredited service animals are protected under disability laws in Australia. Accreditation standards vary state by state, and you can find out more about your rights and local laws by visiting Service Dog Central and the Australian Human Rights Commission.
What Kind of Animals Can Be Used in Therapy?
Many animals can become involved in therapy. Although horses, dogs, and cats are most common, some people choose fish, guinea pigs, and even dolphins. It is very important that therapy animals are friendly, calm, well-trained, in good health, and up to date with vaccinations and parasite control.
Some key points to consider when choosing a therapy animal are:
- Will you be keeping the animal as a pet?
- If so, can you safely and comfortably house a pet where you live?
- Will you be able to financially and physically meet all the animal's needs?
- Will you be able to afford both routine and unexpected veterinary costs?
- Will you be visiting the animal at another location, such as a sanctuary or stable?
- What are your personal goals for animal-assisted therapy?
- What kind of support might you need from your therapist or medical team
What Types of Therapy are Available?
Depending on your personal needs and goals, there are countless types of animal-assisted therapies available to you.
For example, equine therapy programs like Riding for the Disabled provide a wonderful opportunity for people with disabilities to learn to ride and care for school horses under the guidance of experienced professionals. Practising horsemanship promotes not only physical fitness and strength but also a sense of emotional wellbeing and a community setting in which to socialise.
Dolphins trained to socialise with people can also be used in therapy settings, allowing people with disabilities to swim alongside them in pools. Not only does this provide the physical benefits of swimming, but it can also increase speech and motor skills, communication skills, and it provides a unique chance to bond with a beautiful and gentle animal.
What Are the Benefits?
Animal-assisted therapy boasts many proven benefits, including:
- Improved fine motor skills, strength and balance
- Increased self-esteem and self-worth
- Reduced anxiety and depression
- Reducing experience of loneliness and isolation
- Reduced risk of a heart attack or stroke
- Improved interpersonal and communication skills
- Improved sense of purpose and motivation
Where Can I Find Local Animal-Assisted Therapy Resources?
Although there are many providers of animal-assisted therapy in Australia, it can be difficult to know where to start. For this reason, we have compiled a list of popular providers in each state as a starting point for your therapy journey.
The Delta Society operates across the nation providing volunteer-based therapy dog programs. Their Delta Therapy Dogs, Classroom Canines, and Paws the Pressure programs bring the joy of animal companionship to hospitals, care facilities, workplaces, and schools. Delta also provides an educational program, Delta Dog Safe, to teach children and parents positive and safe ways to behave around dogs, aiming to reduce dog bite incidents.
New South Wales
Paws Pet Therapy provides a weekly program in which their trained volunteers deliver animal-assisted therapy in a variety of settings. They also run Paws 'n' Tales, a free initiative for children aged 4-8 who experience difficulties with reading. In this program, children are encouraged to practice reading to gentle and kind therapy dogs to improve their skills and develop a love for reading.
The Psych Professionals in Queensland provide professionally trained and assessed therapy dogs and handlers for goal-oriented animal-assisted therapy.
Mullum Road Clinic are proud providers of animal-assisted therapy for children, teenagers, adults, and families. Their specialist teams are highly trained and include both therapy dogs and horses.
Psychmed’s Cat Relaxation Room is a safe place to unwind and relax with therapeutically trained cats. A session in the room also includes a free beverage, a fresh gourmet dessert from a local bakery, guided meditation, and mindfulness exercises.
Animal Companions is a non-profit organisation with over 100 members providing therapeutic visits with pet dogs to hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and other facilities.
Full Spectrum Development delivers animal-assisted therapy to patients in Tasmania. Their program is customised to the needs, goals and abilities of the person, and includes one-on-one interaction, group sessions, and even farm visits.
Mind Your Paws provides trained therapy dogs and handlers to achieve set goals for a variety of people in the community. Their team comprises a handler who is a registered school teacher and two certified therapy dogs.
Red Rock Stud offers equine assisted therapy in conjunction with qualified psychologists. They offer both in-house and travelling services, and their programs are suitable for all ages and levels of experience.