Animal-assisted therapy for youth with disabilities – a developing best practice?

Animal-assisted therapy is all the rage these days, but is it evidence-based? A small body of research has been compiled on this topic, with limited results due to research design problems.  However, many who conduct or observe this type of therapy feel that the benefits for therapy participants are wonderful.

While visiting the Absolut Residential School for youth with disabilities in Russia, I was able to observe canine-assisted therapy in action.  We started the day by observing a canine therapy session for a young boy with autism.  When the quiet and somewhat uncommunicative boy began the therapy, he was having a hard time tolerating human touch, or understanding his own body.  Through touching Night (the black rescue dog who made up the canine part of the team), and having his therapists name the body part that was touching Night, this boy has started to experience his body in a more integrated manner.  I was moved greatly by watching the difference between the boy’s behavior before and after working with Night.

Another boy I observed flew into the room in a whirl of constant activity.  It was explained that he could not concentrate well, and jumped from space to space, thing to thing, so the goal of therapy was to help him to focus.  He was a high energy, verbal kid, who grabbed at Night and pushed him back and forth.  Night was as calm as could be, a perfect therapy dog.  Over the course of a few minutes, this child went from hyper un-focused, to very focused on a task involving spelling words related to the dog and pictures of dogs.  The transformation was astounding.  Unfortunately, this service is provided by volunteers who train their dogs for free, and travel 2+ hours from Moscow to this school once per week.

Let’s hope that more and more research can explore the efficacy of this therapeutic approach!

Parts of this blog post were originally published here.

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