Kids In Balance - Learn more about AAT
Kids In Balance - Speech Therapy and Equine Assisted Therapy
About Animal-assisted therapy

Have you ever noticed how relaxing it is to snuggle with your pup after a stressful day at work or school? Or how a visit from a furry friend in the hospital can brighten the day of your ill, bed-ridden loved one? The first therapist to document utilizing such a connection in 1964 in his practice was named Boris Levinson. He noticed that when he brought his dog, Jingles, to work with him, children who were previously withdrawn and unresponsive to therapy sudden were more relaxed and open to participating in Levinson’s therapy sessions. He then continued bringing Jingles to work with him and even positioned himself to where the child could only see Jingles, not Levinson, during therapy. As I’m sure you can imagine, the results blew Levinson 

Today, animal-assisted therapy (AAT for short) has been implemented in a wide array of therapy situations with an equally diverse range of species participating as therapy animals. This includes the Hippotherapy, or Equine-assisted therapy, that your child can experience at Kids in Balance. AAT has been incorporated in hospitals, homes for the elderly, prisons, and school systems, just to name a few. The uniqueness of the human-animal bond has helped many therapists successfully treat patients who were otherwise unresponsive to therapy (Levinson, 1969), often due to lack of motivation or interest. This is particularly true with children. In addition to the natural affinity that children tend to have with animals (Melson, 2001), children often view animals as being nonjudgmental and offering unconditional love (Watts & Everly, 2009). This perception of animals provides an environment in which children are more likely to feel safe and comfortable with participating in intimidating activities. Animals can encourage the child to continue working for the duration of therapy sessions as well as motivating the child with a purpose for completing the task if the animal is benefiting from it (Nebbe, 1994).

A typical AAT session looks different within every population and setting, but two aspects always remain the same in order for it to truly be considered animal-assisted therapy (Fine, 2010). First, a certified professional (e.g., teacher, psychologist, speech therapist, etc.) must be present for the duration of the therapy sessions. AAT is just as its name implies: therapy where an animal is assisting. So, many AAT sessions may include the same activities that a conventional therapist would use, and simply include the animal to help the individual feel more comfortable or motivated to complete the task. Secondly, AAT sessions must also be goal-oriented. These sessions must have a set of goals for the patient’s treatment that are determined prior to the start of therapy sessions. This allows the therapist to evaluate the patient’s progress throughout the process and focus on an area for development.

Benefits of AAT

With the rising interest in animal-assisted activities and therapies, there has also been a surge in research studies investigating the benefits and implications of AAT. As we already discussed, the benefits of interacting with animals may be obvious in some ways, but some others may surprise you. Countless research studies have determined benefits that children in particular experience throughout AAT sessions, including (but certainly not limited to) the following:
  • "decreased feelings of loneliness,
  • feelings of increased physical and psychological well-being,
  • decreased need for medications,
  • enhanced quality of life,
  • improved physical function,
  • decreased stress and anxiety,
  • and increased motivation” to participate in therapy (Fontaine, 2001, p. 31).
As we discussed in the section above, Levinson’s dog, Jingles, is a prime example of how these benefits tie in together to foster more positive and productive therapy sessions. Children with language-learning disabilities have been found to be at higher risks for having negative emotional states which can directly impact the child’s desire to participate in therapy sessions. Introducing an animal to therapy sessions increases the child’s motivation to complete tasks and engage in activities for longer durations. This can be attributed to the change in environment from a hospital setting to the outdoors, the ability to influence and benefit another living being, or even mere interest in interacting with the therapy animal. Children have more of a tendency than adults to form special bonds with animals (Melson, 2001), and children are able to relate to animals better when they perceive animals as being nonjudgmental and offering unconditional love. Children who do not expect any kind of criticism from an animal will be more comfortable with the possibility of making mistakes which in turn will help the child to take some risks and learn from his mistakes. This is especially important for patients seeking to increase and improve socialization, which has been shown to increase in therapy sessions with live animals versus traditional therapy (Bass et al., 2009).

Furthermore, hippotherapy is a unique branch of AAT which inherently offers benefits for individuals who are seeking to develop better postural control, balance, and strengthening of core muscles due to the motion of the horse, such as individuals with cerebral palsy (Zadnikar & Kastrin, 2011). The 3-dimensional movement of the horse moving up/down, side to side, and forward/backward helps to elicit this same natural, rhythmic gait in the mounted rider (Bass et al., 2009). While each individual’s needs differ, at Kids in Balance, we do our best to maximize the exercising and stretching that children can perform while on the horse as well as fostering relationships with the animals to promote empathy building.  

Benefits for therapy animals
Even as I’m sitting here typing, I have my dog pawing at my leg for some love and attention. If an appropriate therapy animal is selected, he should enjoy participating in therapy sessions with you! We often solely focus on the many benefits of animal-assisted therapy for riders, which is understandable since they are the ones receiving therapy, but there are also plenty of benefits in store for the therapy animal. In many cases, including those of our animals at Kids in Balance, the animals are rescues who have been through extensive rehabilitation for months prior to working in therapy. Therapy sessions can be an excellent way for the animals to keep up with their physical fitness, exercise, and stretches. They must be in good health in order to regularly participate in therapy with patients. For animals in shelters, AAT could be a daily opportunity for the animal to receive exercise as well as become more socialized with humans which in turn may raise the animal’s chances of being adopted (Hatch, 2007).

Equally as important as it is to keep the animal in shape physically, participating in therapy sessions also keeps the therapy animals mentally stimulated. Many times we notice that the animals at KIB alter their behaviors and social reactions to the children who come for therapy. This can vary from Mr. Peaches calming down and standing still long enough for a little girl to brush his mane, to Scout adjusting his gait if he senses that the child sitting on his back is slipping over to one side. The animals are constantly in tune with the stimuli that they receive from the leading walker giving instructions and the rider giving off subtle cues, whether they know it or not!

Just as the animals pay close attention to the cues that the people around them are giving off, reading the therapy animal's body language is vital for understanding how an animal is responding to therapy session. The handler must be educated in this area to be able to recognize when an animal is physically or mentally worn out, uncomfortable with any situations, or simply not enjoying partaking in therapy sessions (Hatch, 2007). These are moments where the handler should allow the animal to take a step back from the therapy and rest or reevaluate the animal's role in therapy. Some of the body language signs that we pay special attention to with horses are the position of their ears, relaxation or tightness of the horse's mouth, and their overall behaviors.

Selecting a therapy animal

Prior to beginning any therapy sessions or even being selected to join the therapy team, each animal undergoes extensive testing. The therapist mimics some common (and sometimes not so common) situations that the animals may be faced with during therapy sessions. She takes into account the animal's behavior and reaction to these mock sessions. They also carefully consider the animal’s ability to learn and be obedient, any signs shyness or fearfulness, and of course any signs of aggression. The ideal therapy animal will be laid back (as you can experience with KIB’s newest addition, Marley) and unfazed by new situations or even curious (like our beloved Scout). After passing these sorts of examinations, therapy animals are given extensive training to be able to assimilate to a wide range of situations and people. Being rescue animals, the therapist at KIB spends an abundant amount of time with each animal rehabilitating them through injuries, while simultaneously developing deep relationships with each animal. Being trained by the handler allows them to work together as a team. This enables the handler to better understand the animal's cues and body language, and it fosters the therapy animal’s trust in the handler. It has been suggested that optimal success for therapy may be reached by using a professional therapist as the animal’s handler (Hatch, 2007). This is the model that we follow at KIB. Finally, by understanding the animal's body language, the handler should be able to assess whether the therapy animal appears to enjoy participating in therapy sessions. Some animals may simply tolerate participating in sessions if asked, but the goal should be to select an animal who would have a good time. 

Bass, M. M., Duchowny, C. A., & Llabre, M. M. (2009). The effect of therapeutic horseback riding on social functioning in children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders39(9), 1261-1267.

Fine, A. H. (Ed.). (2010). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. Academic Press.

Fontaine, D. (2001). Designing humanistic critical care environments. Critical Care Nursing Quarterly, 24(3), 21–34.

Hatch A. (2007). The view from all fours: A look at an animal-assisted activity program from the animals’ perspective. Anthrozoos. 20(1), 37-50.

Levinson, BM. (1969). Pet oriented child psychotherapy. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Melson G. (2001). Why the wild things are: Animals in the lives of children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nebbe, L. (1994). Animal-assisted activities/therapy as an animal and human welfare project. Humane innovations and alternatives (USA).

Watts K & Everly JS. (2007). Helping children with disabilities through animal-assisted therapy. Exceptional Parent, 39(5), 34-35.

Zadnikar, M., & Kastrin, A. (2011). Effects of hippotherapy and therapeutic horseback riding on postural control or balance in children with cerebral palsy: a meta‐analysis. Developmental medicine & child neurology, 53(8), 684-691.

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