The Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

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I’m going to be honest here. As a family, we are not super rustic. We are not overly physical. We enjoy hiking and many types of outdoor activities, but the realities of dirt and poop and bugs and dirt and sweat and dirt… well, we struggle in that arena. Thus when my son’s therapist suggested one day that he switches to animal-assisted therapy at a farm my first reaction was a nose wrinkle and a skeptical eyebrow raise. However, his therapist seemed convinced that he had reached a point where traditional talk therapy just wasn’t that effective anymore.

He had reached a point where traditional talk therapy just wasn’t that effective anymore.… Click To Tweet

“He knows how to work the system here,” she told me, “I think we should try something else.” That something else was animal-assisted therapy at the farm.

 

Animal-Assisted Therapy and The Farm

I know what you may be thinking. Many of us have seen the commercials for the kids in those therapeutic riding programs. I wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with a therapeutic farm. But my son has a different scope of special needs and, honestly, no desire to ride a horse. In fact, pulling into the farm he was slightly terrified. The few horses that meandered along the fence line were lumbering behemoths to my son. When the therapist came striding down the dirt path from the barn looking more like an ad for a Future Farmers of America club than a licensed professional counselor the first words out of Joshua’s mouth were, “Do I have to ride one of those?”

 

His new counselor laughed.

 

“That’s not how we do things here.” She told him.

 

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What does he do in Animal Assisted therapy?

Now, I cannot speak for all animal-assisted therapy programs or all animal-assisted therapy experiences. I can only speak to ours. This is how the program my son is in works.

 

The first two days of Joshua’s farm program involved being introduced to each and every animal on the farm. The counselor explained that with enough time and exposure an animal and a child will “choose” each other. That animal then becomes that child’s therapy animal for the duration. It is important, the counselor explained to us, that the bond between the child and the animal be allowed to develop naturally. Sometimes it takes only a couple of weeks of sessions; sometimes it takes many sessions. Eventually, though, an animal and a child will find each other.

 

It only took Joshua a single session to find his equine soul mate.

 

Wanda is an ugly, skittish, strange miniature donkey and Joshua adores her. The very first session he came to me brimming with stories about this little gray donkey that singled him out and followed him around. Ever since once a week, Joshua and Wanda and the counselor meet. Now instead of having to drag my son to therapy kicking and screaming, he can’t wait to go.

 

Obviously, you can’t ride a miniature donkey. In fact, when I first learned that Wanda was to be my son’s therapy animal I was slightly disappointed. What in the world are you supposed to do with a miniature donkey? Yet, each week Joshua helps his counselor train and care for Wanda and in the course of things discusses his own issues. They work on patience, they work on anger management, and they work on impulse control.

 

There have turned out to be so many positive effects of animal-assisted therapy. In fact, here are a few that I have directly noticed in my son although his care of Wanda and his relationship with the counselor at the farm.

 

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Benefits of animal-assisted therapy for behavioral disorders

 

Forming Bonds

It’s hard for Joshua to bond with people. He doesn’t understand so many nuances of normal communication that many times it’s a struggle for him to interact normally with people. His behavior is often erratic which can make it difficult for people want to connect with him. It’s like there is a wall of confusion and distrust between Joshua and the outside world. That doesn’t exist with Wanda. Animals love unconditionally. They don’t judge or criticize. Animals can be a safe way for a child with a behavioral disorder to practice connecting with another soul.

Animals can be a safe way for a child with a behavioral disorder to practice connecting with another… Click To Tweet

Gentle social interaction

Through his interaction with Wanda Joshua is able to practice social interaction techniques without fear of reprisal or condemnation. For me, the most important skill he practices here is the ability to read nonverbal cues. This is a particular difficulty area for him. However, donkeys don’t talk. During “therapy” Joshua practices trying to figure out what Wanda wants or how she is feeling solely based on her actions or reactions.

Mental stimulation

Through all of the therapy, Joshua is truly learning how to care for Wanda. He is learning how to anticipate her needs, how to feed her and brush her. Under the watchful eye of his therapist, Joshua is working on focusing on Wanda while remaining aware of the other animals and activities inherent to a farm. He is learning to stretch his mind and build up some of those executive functioning skills that he struggles with.

Catalyst for discussion

This component of animal-assisted therapy was the most surprising to me. Far more real talk therapy gets accomplished during these sessions than I ever imagined.

 

“It’s like I’m talking to Wanda and she [the counselor] just happens to be there,” Joshua told me once.

 

The therapist was less surprised. Evidently, kids often open up more in this type of environment. On a farm, they can talk about the animal, then about the child, then about the animal. The therapy animal serves as a conduit between the child and the therapist. This allows them to delve into tough topics and yet keep the conversation feeling safe.

 

Conclusion

We are still early in our animal-assisted therapy journey. Joshua has only been working with Wanda and his counselor for a few months. However, already in that time, I have been able to see small improvements, tiny changes. It’s not the farm. It’s not the work. It’s the animal.

 

I asked Joshua the other day if he would like to be a farmer one day. His nose wrinkled and he looked properly horrified.

 

No!” he insisted.

 

“But, I thought you loved the farm?” I responded.

 

“I love Wanda.” He told me. It turns out that the love of a strange little donkey is the best therapy in the world.

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