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Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a type of therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment. The goal of AAT is to improve a patient’s social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. Advocates state that animals can be useful for educational and motivational effectiveness for participants. A therapist who brings along a pet may be viewed as being less threatening, increasing the rapport between patient and therapist. Animals used in therapy include domesticated pets, farm animals and marine mammals (such as dolphins). While the research literature presents the relationship between humans and companion animals as generally favorable, methodological concerns about the poor quality of the data have led to calls for improved experimental studies.

Wilson’s (1984) biophilia hypothesis is based on the premise that our attachment to and interest in animals stems from the strong possibility that human survival was partly dependent on signals from animals in the environment indicating safety or threat. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that now, if we see animals at rest or in a peaceful state, this may signal to us safety, security and feelings of well-being which in turn may trigger a state where personal change and healing are possible.

Animals can be used in a variety of settings such as prisons, nursing homes, mental institutions, hospitals and in the home. Assistance dogs can assist people with many different disabilities; they are capable of assisting certain life activities and help the individuals navigate outside of the home.

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Steps in animal-assisted therapy include three stages for physical and psychological health improvement.

Stage One:
Patient goes to session with therapist without animals present to assess therapy needs. The next session the animal is introduced to the client and interactions between the animal and client begin.

Stage Two:
Developing a bond between the animal and client by developing motor skills. Examples include feeding the animal treats or grooming. Then an introduction of verbal skills using verbal commands such as stay and sit. Therapists use animals as a form of motivation for the client. The client is asked to perform tasks like getting water and food for their animal to improve motor functions like walking. Positive social interactions with animals is translated and generalized to positive human interactions.

Stage Three:
Therapist monitors improvement with animal interaction and human interaction and judges positive social situation. Patients are then given power and independence with the freedom to make choices for the animal assisted therapy partner. After client can interact with humans as well as they can with animals treatment is complete.

As with all other interventions, assessing whether a program is effective as far as its outcomes are concerned is easier when the goals are clear and are able to be specified. The literature review identified a range of goals for animal assisted therapy programs relevant to children and young people. They include enhanced capacity to form positive relationships with others i-relief in pet ownership.

Marcus et al. conducted a study using therapy dogs in an Outpatient Pain management clinic. Patients sat in either a waiting room, or a room with a therapy dog in it. Results demonstrated that there were significant improvements on pain, mood, and other distressful measures when patients or family members were placed in the therapy dog room. The study took place over a 2 month time period.

They concluded that patients visited by these therapy dogs have a reduction in their pain rating and an improvement in their mood, with this in mind, there have been many nursing homes and hospitals that elicit the help of cats and dogs as a comfort for patients in their time of need. Patients in these scenarios report elevated mood and comfort when the animal is around. It is also thought that animals create a more positive environment for the hospital or clinic itself, with staff member also reporting elevated moods, as well as creating a more positive appearance of the clinician to the patient.

Preliminary findings suggest that stress reduction in healthcare professionals may occur after as little as 5 minutes of interaction with a therapy dog.

Another example is Cole’s 2007 study on patients who were in critical care after experiencing heart failure. The patients were visited three different times over a period of three months by either a volunteer with a therapy dog, a volunteer by themselves, or the usual care that they had been receiving. The results showed a significant decrease in the cardiopulmonary pressure, neurohormone level, and anxiety level of those patients who received the twelve minute visit by the therapy dog.

Cole cites many other resources such as Blascovich, and Shykoff  where AAT has helped reduce blood pressure and stress among individuals, however these studies focus more on pet ownership as a method rather than AAT.