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January 1, 2014
by Stephanie Ng, MCP, RCC

The Use of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Children with Special Needs

January 1, 2014 02:55 by Stephanie Ng, MCP, RCC

"Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened."

- Anatole France

As an avid animal lover, I have always been curious as to how much of an effect my pets have played in my life. Now, working in a private practice that allows me to offer therapy with animals, I get to observe the benefits of the animal-human bond with my own clients. One set of clientele that I am very passionate about working with is the special needs population. However, working with an individual with special needs comes with its own set of challenges regarding mobility, communication, and safety. Therapy with animals can be an alternative approach to traditional face-to-face treatment with the special needs population. While animal-assisted therapy is a newer form of treatment, early research has suggested its effectiveness, especially with children with pervasive developmental disorders.

Animal-assisted therapy for treatment.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has long been thought to be an effective form of treatment for children with pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) such as autistic disorder, Rett’s and Asperger’s. These disorders are characterized by a “severe impairment of social functioning and interactions” (American Psychological Association, 1994). Symptoms common in children with PDD include a lack of social interaction and communication skills, as well as disinterest and disengagement from their social environment (Martin & Farnum; 2002). Research has shown that animals act as transitional objects, allowing children to establish bonds with them and then extend these bonds to humans (Martin & Farnum; 2002, Katcher; 2000). As such, animals may be one way to increase attachment between children with PDD and their social environment. AAT can be utilized with a variety of different settings including residential care homes, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and hospices. Past literature shows that animals may be particularly well-suited for work with children. Studies have shown that animals alleviate stress (Hansen, Messinger, Baun, & Megal; 1999), increased positive behaviour in children with Down’s syndrome (Limond, Bradshaw, & Cormack; 1997), and a decrease in symptoms in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (Katcher & Wilkins, 1998). It appears then, that animals may have the ability to promote psychological and physical wellness.

To test this hypothesis, Martin & Farnum (2002) designed a study whereby the interactions between children with PDD and dogs were examined and then compared using both behavioural and verbal dimensions. This interaction was then compared to two other interaction conditions: (1) a ball and (2) a stuffed dog.  10 children, all of whom with a PDD diagnosis and ranging from ages 3 to 13, participated in 45 research sessions conducted by a one-on-one therapist for 15 weeks. The children attended 3 sessions every week (1 for every research condition – the live dog, the ball, and the stuffed dog). During the sessions, the children were given the ball, the stuffed dog, or the live dog.  The results of the study showed that children laughed more and gave treats more often in the dog condition. The researchers suggest that this shows that the children were happier and were in a more playful mood. Additionally, in the research condition with the live dog, the children’s attention seemed primarily centered on the dog and not on distracters unrelated to the study (Martin & Farnum; 2002). Children were observed to speak to the dog, initiating numerous exchanges and conversations. Further support that dogs may assist in maintaining the interest and attention of children with PDD was evidenced by the fact that children spoke less about unrelated topics than in the live dog condition. When compared to the stuffed dog condition, it was found that the children were more likely to cooperate with a request from the therapist.

While more research is needed, these initial findings demonstrate that AAT may be an effective form of treatment for children with PDD.

By: Stephanie Ng, MCP, RCC

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Hansen, K. M., Messinger, C. J., Baun, M. M.,& Megel, M. (1999). Companion animals alleviating distress in children. Anthrozoös, 12, 142-148.

Limond, J. A., Bradshaw, J.W. S.,&Cormack, K. F. M. (1997). Behavior of children with learning disabilities interacting with a therapy dog. Anthrozoös, 10, 84-89.

Katcher, A. H. (2000). The future of education and research on the human-animal bond and animal- assisted therapy. Part B: Animal-assisted therapy and the study of human-animal relationships: Discipline or bondage? Context or transitional object? In A. Fine (Ed.), Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations for guidelines and practice (pp. 461-473). San Diego: Academic Press.

Katcher, A. H., & Wilkins, G. G. (1998). Animal-assisted therapy in the treatment of disruptive behavior disorders in children. In L. Ante (Ed.), The environmental and mental health: A guide for clinicians. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Martin, F., & Farnum, J.  (2002).  Animal-Assisted Therapy for Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders.  Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24(6), 657-670. 

About the Author

Shamrock Counselling Shamrock Counselling, MA, RCC, CBEIP, NAEFW

We believe the counselling should be an essential service and are committed to helping people find ways to access resources. We take the time to walk you through the process to find the best fit and suit your needs.

Shamrock Counselling can be found at
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