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The health benefits of pet therapy: Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal Assisted Activities (AAA)

If you have ever snuggled up to her on a cold, lonely night, or cried into her fur about a horrible Monday you know there is nothing less judgmental than your furry friend’s big, round eyes, and lolling pink tongue. In addition to providing you with timely, welcome comfort, your pet can also provide emotional and physical benefits to others in need. Animal assisted therapy (AAT) and animal assisted activities (AAA) bring joy as well as healing to people who need a little extra love. Read on for more information on AAT and AAA to see if pet therapy is right for you and your pawed pal.

Therapy Dog


Fido can be more than just a fun, furry friend

Your beloved canine can be a source of happiness and healing for seniors, hospital patients, special needs children, and people in hospice care and their families. Across the country, organizations dedicate their time to bringing well-behaved animals (most often dogs) to those who need a little extra love. Though your dog, cat or other friendly creature is a close companion, pets are also good for your health.
This could mean anything from local Humane Society volunteers bringing their pets to an oncology ward to provide a cuddly distraction for someone undergoing treatment, to a physical therapist using dog-walking sessions to help an accident victim get stronger. Some programs even use dogs to improve literacy since they act as a non-judgmental audience to which kids can comfortably and even eagerly read.

What is the difference between AAT and AAA?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and animal-assisted activity (AAA) are the official terms for programs in which animals are used to help people through learning or healing processes. The main difference between AAT and AAA is that AAT is goal-oriented, and part of a specific treatment plan while AAA involves using animals for recreation, motivation, education and other life improvement activities.

What are the benefits of AAT and AAA?

For almost twenty years, Marin Humane Society volunteer Oscar Chambers has been visiting senior facilities, schools, hospitals and even individuals with animals in tow. While he is usually accompanied by a dog, he has also brought some more unusual friends, including a chicken and a guinea pig.
“I like the socialization…and I particularly enjoy seeing the response of most people to the animals,” Chambers says. “I think pet therapy works because studies have shown that blood pressure is lowered by petting an animal…and because of the smiles and comments experienced.” 

Michelle Cobey of the Delta Society, a non-profit focused on improving human health through service and therapy animals, concurs. “I think animals are non-judgmental so patients try harder,” she explains in a recent email. “[Animal-assisted therapy] is a unique, enjoyable form of treatment so patients are more motivated.”

For seniors in particular, animal visits can not only alleviate loneliness, they can actually stimulate lost memories of pets they once had. “It’s a real gift,” says Darlene Blackman, who coordinates the SHARE (Special Human-Animal Relationships) program for the Marin Humane Society in Northern California. “They’ll tell you a wonderful story about a dog they had as a child.”

And it’s not just the patients whose days are brightened by these visits. The visitors also leave smiling. Blackman adds, “You’re not only sharing your pet, you are sharing the bond you have with your pet, and the history you have with your pet.”

Can any pet take part in pet therapy?

Of course, not all pets are perfect for therapy. Dogs and other animals need to be outgoing people-lovers with great manners and a tolerant, forgiving attitude. And human guardians need to pay close attention to their pet during visits, offer praise for a job well done, and let them rest and relax post-session. “[For] the right dog, with the right amount of training, it’s a great experience for them,” Blackman assures.

Pet therapy is good medicine

A prescription for pets might be what we all need. They keep us company, keep us calm, and never judge us. Our canine companions can even help us get in shape. While it it’s easy to flake out on going to the gym when you have no one to answer to, your furry friend will not let you forgo his daily walk (or fetch-session, or run in the park). However, make sure you keep your furry friend safe in the summer and other inclement conditions.
Just as you are willing to share your life with your pet, your pet is always there for you. “They’re happy to see us all the time,” Blackman says enthusiastically. All they ask in exchange for their undying love is that you return the favor. Getting your pet involved in AAT or AAA gives other people a chance to experience this wonderful unconditional love when their life circumstances prevent them from having a furry friend.

Oscar Chambers couldn’t agree more. “I feel that animals provide us with a kind of love and devotion that most people appreciate. If one has experienced caring for and responding to an animal, they have enriched their own lives. If you listen to the stories people recall about animals in their lives they are almost always positive.”

If you would like to get involved in AAT or AAA, visit the Delta Society, the leading international resource for the human-animal bond.

And because not all dogs are faithful, friendly companions, check out these tips to prevent dog bites.

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