Animal Assisted Therapy

Animal assisted therapy, also known as AAT, is a therapy that acknowledges the power of animals as a form of treatment. The goal is to improve a patient’s cognitive functioning.  It has also been shown that patients also show improvement socially and emotionally. It helps to lower a patient’s stress levels and helps them to relax.

What are therapy dogs?

It is a dog specially trained to give affection and comfort to people with anxiety disorders or autism.  Their training is usually different from assistance or service dogs training and functions, but they can fulfill more than one function sometimes.  These dogs are also used in places like disaster areas, hospices, retirement homes or anywhere where people are in need of comfort. It has also been successfully used in some prisons.

Therapy dogs are a very special type of dog.  They need a specific personality in order to qualify for being trained as an assistance dog to work in places like hospitals, nursing homes and in some cases in schools.

The personality traits that trainers of therapy dogs are looking for is a patient, calm and very lovable disposition. Most breeds can be trained for this job depending on their individual personalities, but there are a few common breeds that particularly qualify because of their traits to be successful in serving as therapy dogs. These breeds would include Labrador retriever and golden retriever.

Golden Retriever

They are gentle dogs that are very intelligent and they are trained for a number of other jobs besides use in therapy application.  They also make very suitable assistance dogs, police dogs, and other working dogs for places like police, fire brigade and guard dogs. They are also used for hunting and sniffing. They fare very well all round, as they are also very capable athletes and do well as sports dogs or in agility competitions and competitive obedience tasks. In fact, in the USA the golden retrievers are one of the most popular breeds not only as working dogs but also as family dogs.

These dogs fall into the large to extra large range and they have a long to heavy coat that needs a lot of care and brushing.  They shed profusely and needs daily brushing.   They should be living indoors with the family as they do not fare well on their own or out in the back yard.

Children and animal assisted therapy

With children, animals can play a crucial role in helping along education and motivational success. Therapists found that showing up with any type of pet for a therapy session, makes the child more relaxed and the therapist less of a threat, so more time is spent on therapy and less time having to gain the child’s trust. Animals are not only used for therapeutic measures such as helping with ADHD, learning difficulties or autism, but they are also used to help therapists assess children by watching them interact with the animals.  Information such as assessing behavior by tone of voice and interaction, or listening to what the child is telling the animal can be very useful. They can also be used as a distraction method to help deal with pain in terminally ill children.


There are a few reasons that animals are used in therapy for prisoners.  Firstly they are used to help reduce stress.  Not only from the prisoner’s past, but also their current environment can add a lot of extra stresses, which when lightened, will make the whole prison environment less confrontational and safer.

Goal-orientated programs teach the prisoners responsibility, working with a handler to train and look after the animal. Cognitive and behavioral capabilities are enhanced and their social skills are improved by learning how to care, love and be patient.


Nursing homes

Once a person moves into a nursing home, everyday tasks get done for them.  They tend to lose their independence and self efficiency.  This can cause them a lot of stress which in turn can lead to getting ill.  Simple, everyday tasks such as looking after an animal can make them feel needed and purposeful again. It motivates them to keep going, and help to keep their minds sharp. Depending on the need or condition of the elderly, different animal assisted techniques are available.  Councillors found that this is a great help in increasing the patient’s lifespan.


Assisting with PTSD

While we mostly correlate PTSD with military service, studies have shown that during some stage or the other, at least twenty eight percent of the US population are suffering with this disorder. That is the entire population of Texas. PTSD can develop at any age, including in childhood.  Assistance dogs are a great help in controlling the feelings of fear and lack of control brought on by PTSD. Their super sensitive instincts can sense when a person’s anxiety levels raise and they can help to stop panic attacks.

Several government funded assistance schemes exist in different countries.  If you are in need of a therapy dog, inquiring from your local GP is a good start.