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Unit Four: Therapeutic Partnership with Animals

Lesson Overview

Equine Therapy – Horses and Healing

Equine Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAAT) and Therapeutic Horseback Riding are used to help people with a variety of issues; physical, mental, and emotional disabilities, attention and behavior issues, and people with  PTSD, can benefit from Equine Therapy.

Some equine therapies involve riding.  Others involve interactions with the horses, with the human on the ground.  Therapists and trained behavior specialists work with the horse in a variety of modalities, some work with more structured treatment plans, others allow for more spontaneous interactions. 

Those that work with the human on the ground, may involve a variety of interactions with the horse, including observing, touching, grooming the horse, feeding, attaching the harness, leading or following, and connecting in numerous ways.  Some practices use the horse as a tool for healing. 

Letting the Horse Lead in Healing


Others view the horse as co-leading, directing, and instead of having the human “lead the horse” you might say the horse’s will and desire dictate the flow of interaction.  In this style, how the horse responds to the human is an integral part of the therapeutic method.

Horses have been used therapeutically since the ancient Greeks, and the relationship between humans and horses has so entwined that literally, life, as we know it today, would not have been possible without this partnership.

In the last twenty-five years, the field of equine-assisted psychotherapy has become more standardized.  The first national group in the United States, the Equine-Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA), now a part the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), formed in 1996.  Another group, the Equine Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) formed in 1999.  Even as this new field is establishing standards of practice there is still a great deal of variation among the individual equine therapists and how they practice Equine Therapy.

Horses are specially selected and trained to become Therapy Animals.  They need to meet a variety of criteria, for example, they need to be gentle, have a good work ethic, be calm, have a strong steady gait, and enjoy human interaction.  Great therapy horses seem to be very adept at reading human emotions.  They may have strong opinions as to whom they are drawn to, but in general, they will seek interaction.  Some therapy horses are rescues from professional life or retired from racing, and in some cases have experienced abuse and neglect.  In spite of difficult pasts – and even because of it – some of these horses that might have been otherwise euthanized – can become great therapy horses.

Horses can make great therapeutic partners because they work at a non-verbal level and bypass the traps of the mind.  They are often fully present.  Because they are fully in their senses, interacting with them helps humans to move deeper into their own sensory worlds.   It helps people feel more connected with their own body sensations, and the power of the present moment.  Just interacting with them at the most basic level, such as touching, or just being near them, can help humans feel more connected with their own bodies and emotions.  Being near a horse who enjoys interacting can be a strong healing and life-affirming experience.

Exactly how and why interacting with therapy horses is so beneficial to humans often defies logical explanation.  “It is as if we had a Soul Connection, and the horse wakes up that side of ourselves.  Being with a horse is like having your heart eased open,” said Carina Cooper, from HEART Healing, a therapeutic horse center in Hawaii.

Therapy Animals - Criteria and Application

Almost any type of animal can provide therapeutic benefits to a human – if the bond is rich enough, and the human feels love for that animal.  However, animals that are specially trained and certified to become therapy animals for others must qualify with a variety of criteria that make them ideally suited to the job.  These animals may visit hospitals, hospices, libraries, schools, or assist after major crises, such as a school shooting.  In Unit Four we describe the work of therapy animals and the criteria used to evaluate them.

Animal Assisted Visitations – Animal Assisted Activity

In Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) visits, a trained therapy dog (or other animals) and their handler may make rounds, or visits interacting with a number of individuals.  In AAA, there is not a specific agenda.  The interaction, which may be a few minutes, or an hour or so, is very much determined by the connection between the animal and the human.  The human may choose to pet or talk to the animal, groom, or give a treat, or interact in any number of unplanned ways.  The human and the animal find their own way and seem to nourish each other.  Other than the handler maintaining proper animal behavior guidelines, there is a spontaneity that grows out of the mutual interest of the human and the visiting therapy animal. 

Animal Assisted Therapy

In Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) sessions, there is a treatment plan.  Notes of progress are recorded, a therapist is present and is guiding the sessions which have a purpose, such as increasing mobility, increased verbal expression, more engagement, and numerous other possible benefits.  It is noted that patients, such as soldiers with PTSD will talk twice as much if a dog is present.  Gifted therapy dogs seem to know exactly what each patient needs and will respond with very personalized attention.

In this unit, we will go into the details of what makes a specific dog a good candidate for becoming a visiting therapy dog.  The specific criteria, such as the Canine Good Citizenship Test, and Evaluation Processes, will be discussed in detail.  Many of the best therapy dogs were rescued from shelters, and often had difficult pasts, which is in itself an inspiration.

Service Dogs

In addition to therapy dogs that will visit with people they may be meeting for the first time, Service Dogs live with and work with a specific individual and help with specific tasks.  These could be seeing-eye dogs, hearing dogs, seizure alert dogs, diabetic alert dogs, mobility dogs, and so on.  Seizure alert dogs, for example, will alert their owner that a seizure is coming on, so they can take precautionary actions. 


Companion Animals and Emotional Support Animals

For people with PTSD who have difficulty navigating their world, a companion animal can be life-changing.  In my program

Act Resilient, we use therapy dogs to help Service Members and veterans with PTSD as it really helps open their hearts.   In this unit, we explore how dogs can change lives.  For example, Army Captain Luis Montalvan, Ret., had difficulty leaving his apartment, until he got his service dog Tuesday.  Since getting this priceless companion, he was able to get his Masters degree at Columbia, has written several books, and traveled the world telling his inspiring story. 


Emotional Support Animals (ESA) are not service dogs (and do not have the same privileges in public places), but they provide a very valuable service to their owners and help them find balance and strength to face the world.


Companion Dogs for Autism


Having a therapy dog has allowed children who couldn’t function in a classroom environment to be able to attend school.  It builds their confidence and their ability to find stability in challenging situations.  Because people respond positively to the dog, this invites interaction and keeps the child from being completely socially isolated. 


How Dogs Help Children Learn to Read


Trained Reading Dogs significantly help increase children’s ability to read.  Many libraries have added these programs, as the dogs raise confidence (they don’t correct children’s pronunciation).  The dog’s infinite patience and presence calm the children enough so that they can slow down and focus.  A well-trained dog will look at the book, then make eye contact with the child as the child describes what is happening in the story, then look back at the book as the child does.  Dogs provide safe, friendly physical contact, and make reading fun.


Trained Cancer Detection Dogs


These dogs with excellent noses will sniff saliva or breath samples and can predict not only if cancer is present, but the type of cancer with 88-98% accuracy.  They can sniff a line of samples in less than a minute, and this non-invasive procedure is economical and reliable.  While this is a new field of research, the internationally published results are impressive. 


Pigeons have also been trained to recognize and detect hairline fractures on x-rays.  Then they alert the radiologist of the presence of a hairline fracture with an accuracy that surpasses their human medical professionals. 

British research in cancer detection dogs using breath samples.

Genie Joseph, PhD, during a Therapy Horse training at SUNY.

Horses don't judge.  They are fully present and give people a rich experience of connecting with an animal.

Specially trained therapy horses can visit nursing homes and brighten spirits.

Trained miniature horses also make excellent

visiting therapy animals.

Miniature horses make excellent guide "dogs" for blind people.

Richochet, a service dog "failure" helps paralyzed kids to surf for the first time, and finds her true purpose.

"Dogs Are Healers" a film (by Genie Joseph) about the

Human-Animal Bond Program at an Army Hospital.

Capt. Luis Montalvan and his wonderful service dog Tuesday.

Baxter, a paralyzed dog helps patients in hospice.

Oscar, a cat in a nursing home, anticipates impending deaths and alerts staff.  Oscar comes to spend the last two hours with the patients.  His accuracy rate has astounded medical staff.

Oscar cat book.jpg

A woman's pet dog detected her breast cancer when multiple mammograms and doctors missed it.

Dogs can be trained to detect the presence and type of cancer through breath samples.

  Some dogs have up to 98% accuracy as has been reported at international conferences.

The Human-Animal Connection BLOG Lectures for Unit Four.

If you are enrolled in this class here are your 


1. Read this Unit Overview

2. Read Two (or more) Unit Blog Posts

3. Answer the JOURNAL Questions Assignment

4. Take the Quiz (if you are doing for credit)

5. Then Proceed to the next unit:


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Human-Animal ConnectionWebsite

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