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Animal-Assisted Therapy

Faye Chiu

Healing Partnerships

Animal-assisted therapy can benefit animals too!

In recent years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the fact that animals often are just what the doctor ordered. The beneficiaries of the healing power of animals include children, teens, adults and the aged, whether terminally ill, emotionally disturbed, physically or mentally challenged, isolated and depressed, incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized. While everyone who cares about animals is proud that creatures as diverse as dogs and dolphins, cats and cows are being celebrated for their therapeutic value, some in the animal welfare system worry: Who are these “therapy animals,” anyway? Where do they come from, and to put it bluntly, is there anything in it for them?

Animal-Assisted Therapy


It depends. Programs that utilize animals within the broad context of human health and rehabilitation acquire, house, train and maintain their animals in a variety of ways. In some, as you might expect, the animals are viewed more as extensions of patient or inmate treatment than as beings who are worthy of respect and attention to their own unique needs. Where management is more sensitive to animal welfare, this may not be true. And in some remarkable therapeutic settings, the therapy animals are as much in need of rescue or rehab as are the children whose lives they profoundly impact.

Water Boys

Mo, a loggerhead turtle, and Sunset Sam, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, are two animal therapists-in-residence at the Clearwater (FL) Marine Aquarium (CMA), a facility dedicated to marine rescue, research and education. Through its Full Circle Program, CMA offers animal-assisted therapy (AAT) to children. The therapy is designed to provide youngsters with special needs a chance to play the role of caretaker to sick or injured marine wildlife who are being rehabilitated at CMA.

Gentle and slow moving, Mo came to CMA in 1986. Now 38 years old, the loggerhead was born with a serious defect in his shell. Mo is typically the first animal children enrolled in Full Circle are introduced to. “Mo gets that spark going and jump starts the children to work harder,” states mental health therapist Scott Swaim, the program’s director. “He provides a great metaphor for them.” By tossing Mo his meal of fish, for example, a child with physical disabilities may improve his motor skills.

Sunset Sam was found stranded on a mudflat in 1984. At the aquarium, the critically ill dolphin was diagnosed with a visual impairment in one eye and a liver disorder that requires constant monitoring. For Sunset, Mo and other animals who can never return to the wild, involvement in Full Circle becomes a component of a behavior-enrichment program designed to enhance their physical and mental well-being. Swaim describes the interaction: “We work primarily from a platform. We give animals their space and don’t have a lot of touching. If at any time an animal doesn’t feel like participating in AAT, that [refusal] behavior becomes part of the lesson the child learns.” Three on-staff trainers observe and work with Sunset daily. “Sunset Sam gets a different enrichment item every day,” explains Melissa Koberna, director of CMA training. “His toys are rotated according to an individually customized calendar.” While Sunset Sam has been trained to respond to a variety of commands so that he readily cooperates with veterinary treatment or human interaction for the Full Circle program, Swaim emphasizes this dolphin’s patience, specifically with children: “Sunset is consistently attentive when children are present, whereas sometimes when I’m training an adult intern, he may fail to follow through on a command and just swim away.”

Farm and Field Friends

Five years ago, a young cow escaped from a Bronx, NY, slaughterhouse. Because the facility did not have a permit to slaughter large animals, the heifer—later named Scarlet—was confiscated by ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement (HLE) agents. According to Special Investigator Timothy Stack, Scarlet “had been confined in a small cement room, where she was tied short with no bedding.” At the “A’s” Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital, the cow was diagnosed with a severe upper respiratory infection.

These days, Scarlet grazes a five-acre pasture with cow comrades Shadow and Quarter at Brewster, NY-based Green Chimneys Children Services. “She has the best life a cow could have,” says Paul Kupchok, director of Green Chimneys’ farm and wildlife conservation center. “We don’t eat our therapists, so she’s going to be here forever.”

Many of the adolescent children who live at this juvenile rehabilitation center and animal sanctuary are emotionally disturbed or at high risk of violent behavior and have been referred there by New York City courts and social services. Dressed in full uniform, Agent Stack had escorted Scarlet to her new home in the ASPCA’s horse ambulance. “We wanted to show the children that there are officials out there who care about animals, and that there’s no reason to fear law enforcement,” he says.

Babe, a Yorkshire pig, was confiscated by HLE officers from a tiny city apartment six years ago. At Green Chimneys, Babe has already lived longer than anyone expected. Individual students have begun the journey toward trusting other human beings by caring for Babe and Scarlet through the “Learn and Earn” program, in which these troubled youths help care for injured or sick farm animal rescues. “The children bond more strongly to these particular animals because they can relate to their histories,” states Kupchok. “It helps them understand their own situations and develop empathy for other living things who need them.”

Unlike Scarlet and Babe, whose therapy work calls for them simply to listen well, Zoe, an 1,800-pound Percheron mare, participates in specific, goal-oriented therapy at Circle of Hope Therapeutic Riding in Barnesville, MD. “We all recognized that Zoe was special. Wheelchairs, walkers—nothing seems to phase her,” states Lesley Shear, a certified therapeutic riding instructor who is Circle of Hope’s founder and director. Yet even so, says Michael Kaufmann, director of education at the Denver, CO-based North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, “The presence of the instructor, the sidewalkers, the odd weight shifts—these all call for acute concentration if the animal is to perform—and it takes a toll. Many horses are sent on little vacations to keep them mentally fit.” Zoe’s favorite downtime activities—besides grazing with other mares—include cantering across fields and trail riding, which are fully incorporated into her exercise program to ensure her physical and mental well-being.

Pet Partners

Though a dog or cat may be well-suited to fill the role of a family pet, a stellar companion animal does not necessarily have the temperament to become actively involved in animal-assisted therapy. A dog who establishes close bonds within a four-member household, for example, may be affectionate and at ease within his immediate “pack,” yet be completely overwhelmed by the bombardment of strange smells, sounds and outstretched hands at an institutional facility.

“It takes an animal who is very gregarious and confident to do this kind of work,” stresses expert Maureen Fredrickson, founder and president of Animal Systems, a teaching and research center based in Fredonia, NY. To earn certification with a well-established organization such as the Renton, WA-based Delta Society, with which the ASPCA is now formally associated through the “A’s” Center for Behavioral Therapy, animals undergo rigorous screening with their owner-handlers and must pass an aptitude test to become volunteer Pet Partners. A different level of certification is needed to take part in basic activities, such as recreational “meet-and-greets,” than for advanced AAT, in which teams work under the close supervision of a health care professional to meet specific goals for individual patients.

“In training for animal therapy, there’s a great deal of emphasis on learning when the animal has had enough,” explains Stephanie LaFarge, Ph.D., director of ASPCA counseling services, who is both a certified therapeutic riding instructor and, with shelter dog Sophie, one-half of a canine ASPCA/Delta Society Pet Partner team. “There’s double motivation to make sure the animal is having a good time—for his own sake and because of the potential damage he could cause to patients and caregivers.” Well-trained animals who become stressed from therapy visits may not show obvious signs of burnout—such as excessive panting, a growl or a bite—but may begin to have health problems, such as diarrhea or hair loss. Pet Partner trainees are instructed to watch carefully for these warning signs.

At New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, eight certified ASPCA/Delta Pet Partner teams visit the Neuro and Restorative Care Center each week. “It’s an extremely labor-intensive program that entails a lot of behind-the-scenes effort. Yet the animals positively address the psychosocial issues of hospitalization and rehabilitation,” says JoEllen Zem-bruski-Ruple, chief of therapeutic recreation at Mount Sinai.

Manhattan-based ASPCA/Delta Pet Partners Karen Le Frak and her standard poodle, Jewel, not only work with patients with spinal cord trauma and head injuries at Mount Sinai, but have accommodated special requests. Last summer a young male patient asked to see Jewel. Because the pediatric ward administrators, concerned about asthmatic patients, were reluctant to allow a dog into the area, this Pet Partner team walked up eight flights of stairs (hospital staff offered to carry the poodle if necessary) so the boy could meet Jewel on the rooftop. “His face lit up like a Christmas tree when he saw Jewel,” Le Frak recalls. “He walked her with his IV tubes coming out of one hand and the leash in the other.”

No Place Like Home

While Jewel, a personal companion animal, is free to go home with owner Le Frak, where, off duty, she “carries around her fuzzy duck toy and waves her legs in the air for belly rubs,” as more and more health care professionals learn about the healing effects of animals, what is the likely fate of nonhuman therapists enlisted to live full time at institutions nationwide?

A number of state public health laws now require animal contact for patients residing in long-term care facilities. As nursing homes respond to this mandate by acquiring animals, humane advocates have cause for alarm. “Formalized standards to protect the well-being of these working therapy animals is critical right now,” states Fredrickson. “Human health care workers aren’t trained to pick up on animal stress, let alone understand animal behavior.” She urges interested individuals to seek out specific training and workshops.

Certified handler Johnny McGuire, the founder of FLY-N-K9 Therapy Dogs in Palenville, NY, couldn’t agree more. McGuire has taught his therapy partner Baby, an Australian shepherd who was born deaf, nearly 70 different hand signals. When not working, Baby competes regularly in Frisbee® tournaments; she is the only hearing-impaired dog in the country to have become a regional finalist. Intense physical activity prepares Baby for the mental focus needed at the Ten Broeck Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Lake Katrine, NY, where the dog’s name appears on the treatment plans of many of the residents. According to McGuire, Baby’s gift is “her sense about people. She will always approach the neediest person in the room and in her own way figure out what’s special about that person.” Last summer, Baby attended local camps for children afflicted with cancer or HIV, where her Frisbee-catching talents were incorporated into recreational therapy sessions for the children. For animal owners who are interested in becoming involved with pet therapy, McGuire has this advice: “Get your animal evaluated, listen and learn. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ease into the work by repeat visits to the same facility. Make it consistent for the people you’re trying to help and for your animal.”

It is heartening that animal therapy programs exist in which the well-being of animals is as important as the well-being of humans. As long as animal handlers are appropriately trained and carefully monitor the animal’s enjoyment, animal-assisted therapy benefits everyone involved.

Go to theVideotapeTo purchase the award-winning documentary video, “Kids & Animals: A Healing Partnership,” which features many of the animals profiled in this story, contact:Axis Gears—Code AW
315 W. Verdugo Boulevard, Burbank, CA 91502
tel.: (818) 840-9333

Axis Gears will make a donation to the ASPCA for each sale of the $19.95 video purchased by Animal Watch readers.

For More Information

To sponsor a therapy animal

Circle of Hope Therapeutic Riding
Potomac, MD 20859; (301) 294-4819

Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Clearwater, FL; (727) 441-1790

FLY-N-K9 Therapy Dogs
Palenville, NY 12463; (518) 678-0616

Green Chimneys Children’s Services
Brewster, NY 10509
(845) 279-2995, ext. 107

To become a therapy volunteer

ASPCA/Delta Pet Partners program
ASPCA Center for Behavioral Therapy
New York, NY 10128-6804
(212) 876-7700, ext. 4423

Delta Society
Renton, WA 98055-1329
(425) 226-7357

North American Riding for the Handicapped Association
Denver, CO 80233
(800) 369-RIDE (7433)

© ASPCA 2001
ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 2001

Courtesy of
424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804
(212) 876-7700

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