Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)
For children who suffer with fear, anxiety and depression, help just might arrive on four legs. Although fairly new, Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic intervention that utilizes animals such as dogs, horses, rabbits, cats, guinea pigs and even birds as part of the treatment plan in a therapy setting. As more research emerges, it is becoming evident and widely known that when incorporated into therapeutic settings, AAT can improve the outcomes of therapy for children of all ages, complementing and enhancing the work being done on many levels.
In Central Oregon, there are two main types of AAT available for children, Dog-assisted therapy and Equine-assisted therapy.
Compassionate Canines of Central Oregon
Compassionate Canines of Central Oregon is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization who partners with certified therapy dog and handler teams and offers them assignments in various therapeutic settings locally, including schools. This organization was founded in 2001 and their mission is to promote positive human-animal interactions to improve the physical, emotional and psychological lives of those they serve.
One therapy dog and handler team is Joey, a six year old Poodle/Cocker Spaniel mix, and his owner/handler Seren Bruce, a retired clinical social worker who specialized in child and family psychology. Joey was first trained as a service dog, and more recently certified as a therapy dog. “Joey loves people and has a special affinity for children,” Bruce notes. In her former private practice, Bruce utilized animals when working with kids. “Using therapy animals often helps kids relax, reduces their anxiety and helps them focus.”
Recently, Joey and Bruce were asked to assist with a forensic interview with a young child at the KIDS Center in Bend. “The volunteer coordinator of Compassion Canines reached out because she thought Joey would be perfect to be part of this really sensitive case. Joey was incredible. He totally paid attention to the child and put his head on her lap and she had her hand on him the whole time. She walked in there not smiling or making eye contact, not communicating and when she left, she was smiling. Her guardian said that was the first time she had smiled since the incident.”
Science proves that one thing dogs, and some other animals, do naturally by sitting on a lap or laying on someone’s chest is called “deep pressure stimulation,” which is the application of mild but consistent pressure on the torso. The same idea as a weighted blanket, applying this gentle pressure or weight stimulates the brain to release hormones that create a sense of calm and peace.
Another Compassionate Canines team is Ren, a three-year old Standard Poodle, and his handler/owner, Dan Fohrman. A retired physician, Fohrman and Ren just began work with Compassionate Canines after Ren was certified this past spring. “I was interested in volunteer possibilities that allowed flexibility to leave and travel, but still gave me a place and a purpose. This has fit the bill so far and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
“We found a good fit with an assignment at Cascade Middle School with their Bridges program,” says Fohrman. We go once a week and kids come in who just need to take a break from the stressors of life or school. They sit with Ren, give him treats, have him do tricks, talk to him or just sit quietly. They love Ren and have really started to open up to me in ways that are surprising and quite frank. It really seems as though the animals make communication possible for a lot of these kids.” Compassionate-Canines.org
Healing Reins Equine Assisted Services
Another type of AAT offered in Central Oregon is Equine Assisted Therapy. Healing Reins is a non-profit organization that has been offering equine-assisted programs designed to help those with varying disabilities and special needs thrive for over 20 years. Their mission is “To heal with horses,” and for over 10 years, this has included working with local therapists to offer Equine Assisted Mental Health (EAMH) services.
According to Healing Reins Clinical Manager, Lisa Bradley, LPC, R-DMT, although Healing Reins had been contracting with local therapists for years, they only recently began offering EAMH services through their own staff therapists earlier this year. “We currently have five staff therapists, plus myself,” noted Bradley.
Horses have been used in AAT since the 1970s. “Horses are like a giant biofeedback machine,” explains Bradley. “In the wild, for about a mile out, they can read vital signs of their fellow equines in the herd, of any predators. They have to be able to do this in order to survive.” Horses can read people too, Bradley notes.
“Horses will do one of two things, they will either reflect our emotions and match our heart rate and vitals, or they will lower their heart rate to support you lowering yours. Some horses will respond by offering to get close and support you to help calm you,” Bradley says.
“With kids, it gives them an opportunity to check in with themselves, take a look at how they are feeling, how the horse is responding to them. They can learn how to support their horse if it is nervous, and by doing so, they learn how to do that for themselves, so that’s a tool they learn and can go on to use in life,” notes Bradley. “With the biofeedback they get from the horses, they can see and feel how they affect the world around them.” HealingReins.org
No matter what animal is used in AAT, there is no doubt that their impact can be profound. “These animals offer love, you feel it and you feel safe,” explains dog handler Bruce. "Animals can be a conduit for peace.”
“These animals offer love; kids feel it and feel safe. Animals can be a conduit for peace.”
— Seren Bruce, Compassionate Canines of Central Oregon Therapy Dog Handler
“With the biofeedback kids get from the horses, they can see and feel how they affect the world around them.”
— Lisa Bradley, LPC, R-DMT, Healing Reins Clinical Manager