InvisALERT Solutions – ObservSMART

Animal Assisted Therapy for Vulnerable Youth

For almost two decades, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center has been utilizing Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) in outpatient mental health work with youths and their families, working in partnership with local canine and equine organizations. An adjunct to traditional therapy, AAT relies on the human-animal bond in goal-directed interventions as an essential part of the therapeutic work. According to leading AAT expert Cynthia Chandler some of the reasons to include animals in therapy are: (1) Consumers may be more motivated to attend and participate in therapy because of a desire to spend time with the therapy pet; (2) Consumers may receive healing nurturance and affection through physical contact with the therapy pet; (3) Consumers may experience genuine acceptance by the therapy pet; and (4)

In many instances . . . consumers may be able to perform activities and achieve goals that would not otherwise be possible without the assistance of a therapy pet.

Following is an illustration of animal assisted group work using a therapy dog to build social competencies and self confidence in group members.

In a group that was composed of early adolescents who were identified as painfully shy or socially awkward, the group members were all drawn to the therapy dog Elvis, who was introduced as a new “group member.”

Everyone wanted to pet Elvis, a Basset Hound, and feed him treats. The norm in groups like this is to earn time with Elvis by taking steps forward in skill development. For example, speaking up and talking about one’s experiences in the previous week could earn time with Elvis. In addition, the work is metaphorical in the sense that the group members are directed to notice things about Elvis. For example, one group member says, “Elvis looks a little shy.” To which the worker asks, “How can you tell?” This ignites a process in which members begin to build their powers of observation and reading non-verbal cues, for example.

In animal assisted groups the group worker must work closely with a co-facilitator, the animal handler. The handler is like an interpreter who can teach about his or her dog. For example, “This is how Elvis will show you if he is a little shy and here is how you can approach him.” The group members transfer learning by observing and learning about and interacting with the animal. They can then practice without being hit over the head with it by being lectured to. Success comes by noticing the animal or by failing to do so. For example, if an animal shies away, group members learn that maybe he needs some quiet time. In other words, the members discover that there are lessons learned from not having their wishes fulfilled all the time.

Having an animal handler as a co-leader is not very complicated since their role is circumscribed. The handler is an interpreter who loves to talk about the personality of his or her dog and its uniqueness. They can humanize how the dogs speak and keep appropriate boundaries (e.g. not rushing at someone socially). Using dogs are a little easier to arrange for logistically, but there are a growing number of settings that offer equine facilitated therapy, which add another dimension to group work for shy and awkward youths.

According to my North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center colleague social worker Lee Holtzman, Animal Assisted Therapy is a viable alternative to work with children and youths who have a history of trauma. Expanding research in the area of how trauma affects the brain has highlighted the role of adjunct therapies such as yoga and animal assisted therapy, for example, to help people safely regain the ability to feel their bodies and to uncover and release painful memories stored in the body.

Finally, two guidelines to keep in mind when planning to use animals are: (1) Seek parental permission. This is particularly relevant to culturally sensitive practice. There are certain cultures that may have strong attitudes towards human-animal interaction that might preclude practice with animals. In any case, engaging parents in the process is a must; and (2) Screen for proper credentialing and training. Carefully screen animals and handlers to be sure that they are properly trained and credentialed.

Andrew Malekoff may be reached at: This article is adapted from his textbook Group Work with Adolescents: Principles and Practice, 3rd Edition, New York: The Guilford Press.

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