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Animal-Assisted Therapy

The Purr-fect Therapy
WebMD Feature

From borzois to whippets, the Westminster Dog Show highlights the best of the best when it comes to man's best friend. But these tender, loving animals can do a lot more than look graceful and pretty -- OK, you might not consider a bulldog "pretty." Dogs and other animals are helping many people through rough and troubled times.

Take Steven (not his real name), a boisterous young boy from Brewster, N.Y., who stands too close, speaks too loud, and doesn't have the foggiest clue when it comes to personal boundaries. This resident of a children's home benefits from an innovative therapy approach known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT).

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Steven charges at the donkeys in the pen, desperate to interact with them. They run. He tries again. They run.

Then his therapist suggests a new tactic -- try approaching the donkeys calmly, quietly, and slowly. It works. The donkeys stand while he happily strokes their muzzles.

The therapist praises Steven on his gentle manner and talks about body language. Steven may not know it, but he's working hard and learning a lot. Later, when he is ready, his therapist will help him see how these same social skills can help him improve his relationships with his peers and the other people in his life.

More Than 'Warm Fuzzies'

Animal-assisted therapy is more than just petting animals, says Patricia LaMana, CSW, a social worker at Green Chimneys. Unlike programs that provide what are known as animal assisted activities (AAA) in hospital and other settings, AAT interactions need to be goal directed, individualized to the patient, directed by a human health professional (like a therapist or social worker), and have documented progress.

"The warm fuzzies are definitely a place to start the work, but it goes way beyond that," says LaMana.

While the results of animal-assisted therapy are just beginning to be documented in the medical literature, those who work in the field use words like 'magical' and 'groundbreaking' to describe the results they are seeing. One of the largest organizations, Delta Society, says their Pet Partners program has over 4,000 human-animal teams in the U.S. and five other countries. The Delta teams provided over 600,000 hours of service, both AAT and AAA, in 2000 alone.

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