Exploring Animal-Assisted Programs with Children in School and Therapeutic Contexts is an article by Lori Friesen that looks at the use of animal-assisted therapy with school children. Animal-assisted programs abbreviated as ATT, are therapies in which animals are used as a therapeutic help in restoring balance in a persons life. The popularity of such programs for children in schools and hospitals is growing day by day. This article looks at how children benefit from these programs as well as at the concerns about therapies involving animals. According to research that has been going on for decades, therapy animals, especially dogs, can offer emotional, physiological, physical and social support to children. The differentiating features of animal-assisted therapy have something to do with the complementary inclusion of a trained therapy animal in achieving an intervention objective within therapeutic environments. The program is also an add-on to certain education goals within school texts.
In the article, Friesen points out that there are certain general assumptions underlying animal assisted therapy. Although therapy animals are interactive, children think of them as non-judgmental participants who do not fall within the expectations and complications of human relationships. Such an exceptional interaction may provide children with a valuable form of emotional and social support in therapeutic and educational matters. The article highlights supporting research for ATT with children, common concerns and criticism of the therapy, as well as general assumptions and distinguishing features of the therapy when applied to children. The information contained in the article can be quite useful to social workers and nurses who wish to find out how well the therapy can be implemented (Friesen, 2010).
As animal assisted therapy becomes more and more common, its benefits are becoming increasingly recognized. Any individual who has ever cared for a pet can readily testify as to the advantages of interacting with animals. They are reassuring to hold and fun to keep someone company. Their antics inspire a sense of carefreeness and humor, triggering feelings of a return to childhood accompanied by its cheerful spirits. Looking after pets encourage responsibility, nurturance and adherence to a regular schedule. They make it possible for owners to go outside themselves and allay their fears of an uncertain future. Animals live in the immediate present, and interactions with them make human beings feel the present with all its idiosyncrasies and joys.
In the case of children, especially those having special needs, being able to interact with an animal can have a rather positive effect on the quality of their lives. For example, such an interaction can in some cases enhance recovery after a serious illness. Also, it can induce a sense of responsibility, change behavior and even improve the ability of a child to take part in therapeutic treatment, resulting in achievement of laid-down objectives and goals. Children are known to be quite trusting and can effortlessly achieve a level of intimacy with pets. Such a special bond makes animals quite effective as co-therapists.
A notable example of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for children having special needs can be seen in the way it is utilized at the St. Marys Hospital for Children. Application of the program was launched with a monthly session in December 1998 whereby a single dog was used for a small group of sick children. Since then, the program has rapidly evolved over the last several years and presently it includes dog visits to the medical center three or four times per month. According to Friesen (2010), while therapy still takes on a group level, an individual component has been incorporated to include direct visits to a patients bedside.
During a session, each patient works with his or her occupational therapist either on a therapy mat or on their wheelchair. The therapist will apply various treatment techniques to enable the children to work on specified goals while at the same time interacting with the dogs. For instance, children patients who are recovering from traumatic brain injury go through substantial difficulty grooming and dressing themselves due to loss of function in one arm. The therapist can ask such a child to reach out and touch, brush or even feed the pet using the weak arm. He or she can add a wrist weight to the arm so as to develop strength. This makes the child excited and motivated to take part in the treatment in a way that makes achievement easier and quicker.
In Exploring Animal-Assisted Programs with Children in School and Therapeutic Contexts, several problems associated with animal-assisted therapy are highlighted. One of them is that a majority of clinical trials concerning the effectiveness of the program are usually methodologically flawed. This means that the conclusions they arrive at cannot be trusted. There is little or no proof that the improvements observed in studies of animal therapy are a result of animal therapy rather than the interaction with the pets sympathetic handler. The validity of clinical trials on the effects of pet visitations on children undergoing therapy has been compromised by poor research methods. All randomized clinical trials on animal-assisted therapy carried out to date are methodologically inconsistent to the extent that they do not satisfy the accepted minimum standards set for them to be included in a detailed analysis. Among the notable flaws in ATT researches are the absence of a non-treatment control group, insufficient number of subjects, lack of follow-up studies, and great reliance on self-reports as opposed to objective measures.
Friesen, L. (2010). Exploring animal-assisted programs with children in school and therapeutic contexts. Early Childhood Education Journal, 37(4), 261-267.
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