A New Breed of Therapy
It's not just dogs anymore. Horses, goats—even rats—have joined the growing field of animal-assisted therapy
Ellen Kinney opens the barn door for Dahlia and Duncan. Two black-and-silver pygmy goats, each about a year old, prance out. Kinney has trained them to respond to a clicker, so that Dahlia seems to dance while Duncan jumps up and down from a plastic chair.
Those aren’t their best tricks. Dahlia and Duncan work as therapy animals at the Barking C.A.A.T. (Center for Animal-Assisted Therapy) Ranch in Lakewood, Colo. Among the ranch’s clients is a teenage girl with severe social anxiety who works with the goats, getting to know and be comfortable with them, going for walks in the park with them (and a therapist). When others ask her about the goats (and they always do) the girl introduces them, sparking natural, unforced conversations.
“Here she gets to build a whole new confidence and competencies that she didn’t have before,” says Kinney, who manages clinical services at the ranch. “It’s just really changed her personality. Since she’s been working with us she goes out to dinner with her family and has reconnected with her friends.”
Dahlia and Duncan are joined at the ranch by two miniature horses, a full-sized horse, an assortment of service dogs, two therapy rats, and at least one therapy cat. The ranch’s human staff consists of five therapists and 20 volunteers. They work with a variety of clients, including children and adolescents, veterans, and couples. The animals assist in providing comfort, responding to the clients, and serving as means for interaction and discussion of issues that otherwise might be less accessible. A child dealing with abandonment, for example, might be better able to talk about those feelings while sitting beside and looking through the photo album of Sasha, a rescued Shar-Pei mix who found a loving home at the ranch.
Barking C.A.A.T. is part of a growing effort to better understand animal-human connections and apply that understanding to therapy and social work. At the vanguard of that effort is the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, which conducts research and offers a graduate certificate in animal-assisted social work. Denver was the first to offer such a certificate in the growing field. Kinney and many of the ranch’s therapists are alumni.
The animal-assisted social work program is coordinated by Philip Tedeschi. Sitting in his office, with at least four dog photos on the wall and a water dish beside the conference table, Tedeschi talks of how animals and people already interact emotionally, neurologically, and physiologically.
“We’re starting to recognize that these are some of the most reliable and consistent relationships that people have,” he says. “The interesting question has become what are all the different ways that animals can be utilized to participate in educational and therapeutic initiatives?”
Tedeschi studies both the positive and negative aspects of human-animal interactions. (Watch his 2010 TEDx talk here.) He collaborated with law enforcement, animal control, and social service agencies in the Colorado Link Project to recognize animal abuse as an early indicator for preventing further abuse and personal violence. He also works on conservation and environmental social work issues in East Africa. Throughout all of this he stresses the ethical considerations of working with animals. “If it doesn’t work well for the animal,” he says, “then the chance of therapeutic success is low.”
A CHILD IN THE U.S. IS MORE LIKELY to grow up with a pet than a father at home, observes Layla Esposito, program director at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “The question is, what kind of an impact does that have?” she asks. “Does it help with emotional development, with empathy? Anecdotally there is strong evidence, but we’re looking to understand that more fully.”
With major longitudinal research initiatives and advances in studying human responses, “it appears that human-animal interaction has turned a corner where we’ve had difficulty studying these interactions in the past,” Tedeschi adds. Still, the field must continue developing research-based clinical protocols for animal-assisted practices to be more widely accepted and applied, he says.
While animals have long been recognized for their therapeutic and health value as companions, much evidence was considered anecdotal and sentimental. Formal research on these interactions is time-consuming and expensive. As the field has progressed, animal-assisted therapies have gained standing in medical settings and now in social work programs, although “I wouldn’t describe this as close to having the full endorsement of the mainstream medical community,” Tedeschi adds. With additional research, animal-assisted therapies are moving toward greater legitimacy. “I also wouldn’t describe it as being fully in doubt, because we are accumulating the evidence. It belongs in academia right now because we need a lot more thinking and research.”
This research imperative is supported by the Shriver institute, which created a private-public partnership with pet food maker Waltham-Mars. The partnership has funded 21 studies, a dozen of those under way this year, and has published two edited collections, Animals in Our Lives and How Animals Affect Us.
Current institute-funded studies include an examination of classroom guinea pigs in working with autistic children, the training of shelter dogs at juvenile detention facilities to develop empathy and social functions, and using therapy dogs to support children when testifying in abuse cases.
The point, Esposito says, is to understand how people and animals interact and the conditions under which those interactions might be most beneficial.
“There is so much personal belief about the benefits of human-animal interaction that it’s sometimes hard to tease out what has actually been supported by science,” she says. “We want standardized protocols. We want to know if you add an animal to an intervention, is it really the addition of the animal that is leading to these results?”
IN OPENING A RECENT GRADUATE CLASS on animal-assisted social work, Tedeschi announces, “Welcome everybody, those of you with two legs and those with four.” Twenty students and half as many service dogs greet him. During the class, students role-play animal-assisted therapy sessions.
“The start of the relationship can be through the animal. The animal is the conduit,” Tedeschi explains. Two students sit in the middle of the classroom. One acts disaffected while the other introduces a dog as a way to practice voice modulation and effective eye contact.
“You can use the animal relationship to get a different perspective,” Tedeschi says. “We also know that physiological interaction in the animal-human relationship can bring down blood pressure and increase oxytocin levels.”
The students brainstorm ways to work with other issues and animals, such as horses, cats, and even rats in addressing trust.
A graduate of the program, Kelsey Hopson coordinates animal-assisted services with CBY YouthConnect in La Junta, Colo., a residential treatment facility for adolescent boys. “There is a lot of media about the magic of having a dog around a kid and that if you just introduce a dog, that works,” Hopson says while Samantha, a Labrador and golden retriever mix, lies quietly behind her. “The burden is on you as the therapist. Sam’s an excellent dog, but she’s not the therapist.”
Hopson describes the ways that she and Samantha work with at-risk youth. Samantha’s dislike for baths provides a lesson on hygiene. Kids build teamwork and patience in teaching Samantha to navigate an agility course. Samantha accompanies a child to help facilitate peer relationships. Because their time with Samantha is limited, kids with attachment issues practice saying goodbye.
“I’m surprised by the variety of applications,” Hopson says. “I think there’s room for tremendous growth in this field. I’d like to see it be the best professional field it can be.” As she prepares to leave, Samantha gets up, too, and she's with her every step of their way.