Animals as Partners in Therapy

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

The Science of Animal Assisted Therapy


Pet Therapy Teams, which consist of a human handler and a trained animal, can have a significant positive impact in a variety of contexts. They can open hearts and minds, ease anxiety, help people cope with trauma, injury and illness, lower stress, and help people find their smile.


Pet Therapy Teams visit children and adults in schools, hospitals, jails, hospice, courtrooms, libraries, and in many therapeutic environments.



There are several organizations that certify Pet Handler Teams, such as Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Therapy Dogs International, and Pet Partners, just to name a few. The tests vary by organization, but they are rigorous, requiring very specific obedience and social skills from both the human and the animal. While dogs are the most common to be certified as a visiting therapy teams, horses, miniature horses, cats, rabbits, llamas, dolphins, pigs, goats, birds, monkeys and "pocket animals" are also certified by some organizations.



Therapy animals provide interaction and companionship and may assist in emotional, psychological, and physical interventions in a variety of therapeutic contexts. There are two main categories for Pet Therapy in which certified and registered handler/owners might participate:


1 ) Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)


2) Animal Assisted Activity (AAA)


Animal Assisted Therapy involves the owner and animal working in tandem with a health professional. The Pet Partners Standards of Practice for Animal-Assisted Therapy defines AAT as follows:


"AAT is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession. AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. AAT is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature. This process is documented and evaluated."


AAT has been shown to have multiple benefits for a variety of patients. One randomized control study with patients hospitalized with heart failure was investigated by US Army researchers and reported in the US Army Medical Department Journal. They discovered that those who had just eight minutes of AAT, self-reported less anxiety but also had a "Change from baseline that indicated a significant decrease in systolic pulmonary artery pressure and pulmonary capillary wedge pressure" (US Army Medical Department Journal, Canine Edition USAMDJ).


Canine Assisted Ambulation - patients move more when a dog is part of the process

Another benefit of AAT is that patients who are less willing to comply with treatment or hospital procedures, either because of pain, depression, fatigue, or other reasons, are more likely to be motivated to participate in their treatment if a trained dog is present and involved in their procedures. This has been seen across numerous areas, but one notable example is with Canine Assisted Ambulation (CAA), in which dogs help motivate patients to move more.


Knisely and Barker report that cardiac patients who first refused ambulation with an aide, were then presented with a canine-assisted ambulation. They state that with canine assistance, 18.9% of cardiac patients reversed their position, and voluntarily ambulated with the dog.


"Other patients who that engaged in the CAA walked almost twice as many steps (96% more). This study suggests that CAA may be motivational and an effective adjunct to existing ambulation and patient care routines. Furthermore, as early ambulation has been associated with decreased length of stay and thus reduced patient care costs among cardiac patients, the use of CAA may additionally improve (patient) outcomes." (USAMDJ)


In addition to helping patients, therapy visits can help providers and staff to reduce stress, and lift their spirits. Sweet dogs make almost everyone smile and this can help them reduce the effects of compassion fatigue. So,these visits are not just for patients! Ensminger discusses these multiple benefits and defines the work of a therapy dog as:


"A dog that, with a handler, visits individuals or groups to provide relief from an institution such as a hospital, or condition such as cerebral palsy or Alzheimer's. Therapy dogs may be used one-on-one as part of a treatment program for an individual, which is often called AAT, but mostly therapy dogs in the US today visit facilities to help or at least cheer up the populations of those facilities." (USAMDJ)


Even Short Contact is Beneficial


In a Japanese study on AAT and the effects on the prefrontal cortex, published in The International Journal of Psychiatry and Clinical Practice, by Aoki, et al., it is suggested that:


"AAT possibly causes biological and physiological changes in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and that AAT is useful for inducing the activity in the PFC. Using NIRS, (near-infrared- spectroscopy), the measurement of cranial nerve activity was measured in real-time, showing numerous positive benefits on the brain from even 20 minutes of contact, including, holding or petting a therapy dog, and many patients look forward to these interactions above all other therapeutic interventions. This increased PFC activity had a positive impact on depression, and other studies have shown positive impacts on issues such as anxiety, fear, blood pressure, heart rate, salivary cortisol, and salivary alpha- amylase."


Aoki’s study further suggests that AAT allowed a large region of the PFC to be strongly activated, perhaps due to the combination of the stimulation of the senses of touch, sight, hearing, even smell, through the interactions with animals. This is very important because many patients with depression will exhibit a low level of cerebral activity in the PFC. Aoki’s study, showing the biological and physiological changes induced in the activity of the PFC, gives evidence that AAT can be a useful tool in treating depression.


Animal Assisted Activity


Miniature horses are often used in Pet Therapy

On the other hand, the therapeutic use of AAA (Animal Assisted Activity) is less formal. There are no treatment plans or notes; there is no specific agenda. Interactions are spontaneous, often joyful, and could be as short as two minutes, or could last for an hour. In many cases, the pet-therapy team consists of a human volunteer and their specially trained, certified animal. The focus is on the human-animal bond, uplifting connection, engagement, social interaction, healing the spirits, and even entertainment.


The Pet Partners website defines AAA as follows:

"AAA Provides opportunities for motivational, educational, recreational, and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance the quality of life. AAA are delivered in a variety of environments by specially trained professionals, paraprofessionals, and/or volunteers, in association with animals that meet specific criteria."

Obviously not all dogs are suitable to become part of a healing team, just as not all humans are adept at such tasks. Each Pet Therapy organization has slightly different methods and objectives. But they will all involve a very specific set of criteria for the dog and their human, and an animal-handler team has to pass a rigorous evaluation and testing process. A candidate should be able to pass such preliminary tests as the CGC, (Canine Good Citizenship) Test, which tests 12 basic obedience skills. But in addition, a therapy dog has to be able to handle the specific stressors that will present themselves on therapy visits.


Therapy Animal Teams Visit Patients in a Variety of Settings


Although Dog and Human handler teams are the most common, a few very special horses, llamas, cats, pigs and other animals have been certified by various organizations. Here is an amazing therapy horse, Peyo who chooses who to visit and has the ability to detect cancer and tumors.