Animal Assisted Therapy
Speech Pathology involving a therapy dog when clinically indicated can provide motivation, increase willingness to communicate, and bring a smile to the face of individuals who are working hard to achieve their speech and language goals. Animal assisted intervention is a great way to get clients talking and learning.
Meet Poppy - My Canine Co-therapist
Say hello to Poppy! Poppy is a five year-old Labradoodle with a caramel coat, and a friendly and playful nature. She is also very clever and intuitive, which makes her a perfect therapy dog.
What is Animal Assisted Therapy/AAT?
Animal Assisted Therapy involves the inclusion of a trained therapy animal - in this case, a dog - in the delivery of therapy sessions. It is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is directed, delivered and documented by a clinician (the Speech Pathologist) with a specific goal in mind.
What are the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy?
There are many benefits to the use of Animal Assisted Therapy. Having a dog (or “canine co-therapist”) present during a session can present inspiration for many language goals. For example, talking about what the dog is doing involves the use of a range of vocabulary, grammar, pronouns, tenses and sentence structures.
Animal Assisted Therapy can provide opportunities to teach social communication (pragmatic/discourse) skills such as emotions, cause and effect, taking turns, consequences, problem-solving, observing and interpreting body language. It is also great for teaching higher-order language and executive functioning skills. Activities such as planning to teach the therapy dog a new trick, creating an obstacle course, or setting up a toy puzzle can all be typical activities within an animal-assisted therapy session.
A canine co-therapist can be a great mealtime model for children with feeding difficulties. Poppy loves to eat all food in sight, and children can practise their own meal time goals with her as a willing participant. Talking about the foods that are safe and unsafe for dogs, liked or disliked by Poppy, and/or liked or disliked by the client can be great conversation practice as well as helping to improve the child’s own perceptions of, and attitudes towards, food.
The presence of therapy dogs can motivate children to accomplish tasks in speech therapy using a strengths-based, growth mindset approach. For example the child can learn about teaching things they are good at to others, overcoming challenges, learning new things, trying their best, and dealing with disappointment or failure. They can practise using target speech sounds, vocabulary, grammar, sentences and oral texts as they do these tasks! Animal-assisted therapy can easily be incorporated into sessions for clients with reading, spelling and writing goals too.
Lastly, animal Assisted Therapy is great for incidentally working on other skills such as caring for pets, compassion, patience and emotional regulation.
Who is Animal Assisted Therapy good for?
Of course, Animal Assisted Therapy is not appropriate for everyone, and depends primarily on the client’s comfort level with animals, specifically dogs in Poppy’s case. Animal Assisted Therapy can be a good solution for children who find therapy difficult, as the presence of Poppy gives therapy sessions an enjoyable focus and takes away the ‘spotlight’ from the child.
Some children are interested in Poppy, but don’t need to have her present in their sessions. They can write her a letter, draw a picture of Poppy, write a story about Poppy or look at pictures to talk about Poppy instead. Many children go from being fearful and wary around dogs in general to being very interested in Poppy’s latest adventures.
I always incorporate an element of teaching about safety around animals when working with Poppy and clients. Poppy is an extremely friendly and affectionate dog, but children should also learn how to behave around other dogs in the community - some of whom may be more sensitive, or less comfortable, around children. Rather than teaching your child to hold out their hand for unfamiliar dogs to sniff, we recommend teaching them to ‘be a tree’ and stand still, with their arms by their side, so the unfamiliar dog can sniff them and move away/stay nearby if they want to interact further with the child.
How does Animal Assisted Therapy work?
Animal Assisted Therapy is goal-directed, with the specific activities varying based on each client’s individual goals. Keep in mind that the dog is not delivering therapy, the Speech Pathologist is delivering therapy with the participation of the dog.
What is a Labradoodle?
A Labradoodle is a cross between the Labrador and Poodle breeds. Labradors are known for their friendly and food-obsessed nature, whilst Poodles are famous for both their intelligence and non-shedding coats (helpful for those with allergies).
Why did you choose the name Poppy?
I chose the name “Poppy” because it is a two-syllable word, which is often an easier word shape for toddlers, and children with speech sound disorders, to say. The “p” sound is one of the earliest speech sounds to develop in children, making it either more likely for speech therapy clients to be able to say Poppy’s name clearly – or to have it as one of their target words if they are presenting with a significant speech sound disorder.
About my background in Animal Assisted Therapy
It’s not just the therapy dog that needs to be highly trained in Animal Assisted Therapy - the Speech Pathologist has to know how to run the session, work with the therapy dog, and maintain their own training.
In 2017, I travelled to Texas, USA to attend training for Animal Assisted Therapy with the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy (IIAAT).
Prior to the face-to-face component, I completed two self-directed learning courses, totalling 40 hours of training. The course involved theory and hands-on information about involving animals in therapy sessions for individuals with a range of difficulties.
Animal Assisted Play Therapy was a wonderful way to begin learning about animal assisted intervention, because it fits in so well with the client-centred, playful approach of my Speech Pathology sessions.
I stay up to date with literature and studies regarding Animal Assisted Therapy best practices, and continue to maintain Poppy’s high level of training on a daily basis. I regularly liaise with other Animal Assisted Therapy-trained therapists both in Australia and around the world.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whether Animal Assisted Therapy would be a good fit for your child.