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Animal Assisted Therapy

Written by Koh Kah Yong and Jewel Yi

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However, what is lesser-known is that the cute and cuddly therapy dog is so much more than just a happy pill. A therapy dog can become one of the most versatile and powerful tools when used by trained personnel during occupational therapy sessions. Below are some ways a therapy dog can benefit our children: 

What is Animal-assisted Therapy?


As the name suggests, animal-assisted therapy is done when an animal is brought in to help facilitate goals attainment in a therapy session. In Singapore’s context, the animal is most likely the human’s best friend - a dog!   


Why Animal-assisted Therapy?


Mood and Motivation

Animal-assisted therapy, particularly with dogs, have been well-researched to lower stress and anxiety levels (Lass-Hennemann et al., 2018; Odendaal & Meintjes, 2003). Dogs were believed to be the first domesticated animals, and have therefore evolved alongside humans. Hence, most dogs are extremely sentient and perceptive of human emotions, making them particularly effective in improving children’s mood and motivation during therapy sessions. Research has shown that interaction with a therapy dog itself is effective in lowering cortisol levels and can benefit individuals with psychosocial issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder or mood disorders (Altschuler 2017; Fung 2017). 



Social Skills

Children can have difficulties with social interactions for a few reasons. For example, children on the autism spectrum may have issues with shared attention, reading non-verbal cues, and social reciprocity. These areas can be addressed in an animal-assisted therapy session when children learn how to interpret a dog’s non-verbal cues (eg. Guessing what the dog is thinking about) and reciprocate with the appropriate action (e.g. patting, giving treats, throwing a ball) and commands. This interaction with the dog is not only rewarding, but children also get immediate feedback and can adjust their communication in real-time to achieve the outcome that they want (Martin & Farnum, 2002). In addition, therapists can also create opportunities for children to problem-solve through appropriate social communications such as asking mommy for treats to feed the dog, or asking the therapist to help them reach for a toy for the dog. More importantly, these interactions with the dog are natural, which can be a lot more meaningful and easy to understand for children. This is as opposed to children playing pretend with the therapist or dolls, where they have to imagine and practise social skills in simulated situations. Below is a comic strip to illustrate how social skills may be practised in an animal-assisted therapy session. 


Likewise, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may experience difficulties controlling their impulsive behaviour and hyperactivity, which can impact social interactions. Many times, these children understand the rationale and importance of pro-social behaviours and can even verbalise what needs to be done! Yet, they lack opportunities to practice skills such as self-regulation and frustration management. With a therapy dog, these children have a chance to learn how to control their excitement and urges (practising ‘indoor voice’ / ‘gentle hands’) if they are to gain the dog’s friendship and meaningfully interact with it (Schuck et al., 2013). Fortunately, therapy dogs are a lot more forgiving and easy to bribe with treats! Hence, they act as the perfect partner to a therapist in encouraging children to practise pro-social behaviours which can act as a stepping stone to better social interaction with peers. 

Cognitive Skills

The possibilities for animal-assisted therapy are endless and are often determined by the children’s needs and the therapist’s creativity. Studies have shown that therapy dogs are also effective in cognitive skills training (Goddard & Gilmer, 2015; Winkle & Jackson, 2012). For example, a child who needs more practice with sequencing may be motivated to test those skills to bake dog cookies for the therapy dog. Another child who needs working memory practice may remember the dog’s name, feeding schedule, commands or be inspired to learn the names of dog breeds. In other words, the presence of a therapy dog sets a unique context for children to apply and practise their cognitive skills. Let's see the comic strip below for a brief example of how the above session can be extended for children to exercise their cognitive skills.


Physical Skills


If you had 15 minutes, would you rather sort different coloured beans and walk up and down a piece of tape, or peel apart treats and play catch with an enthusiastic Corgi? Both of these scenarios aim to improve fine motor skills and body coordination. Yet, the session with the therapy dog would probably be preferred by our children. Children have an innate curiosity, are energised by novel experiences, and want to interact with their environments (Goddard & Gilmer, 2015). Thus, occupational therapists who are mindful of this can capitalise on children’s natural fascination with animals, and use dogs to inject even more fun into what is done at therapy! This additional distraction may mean a world of difference especially for children with muscle tone issues, as moving their bodies can be difficult and uncomfortable. 

At Marvels Therapy, we believe that effective therapy sessions should be really fun for our children! If you have any questions about animal-assisted therapy or are just as excited to meet our dog, feel free to contact us. In-person therapy services are based in sunny Singapore but we are happy to consult you wherever you are!

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Altschuler E. L. (2018). Animal-Assisted Therapy for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Lessons from “Case Reports” in Media Stories. Military medicine, 183(1-2), 11–13.


Fung, S. (2016). Canine-assisted reading programs for children with special educational needs: rationale and recommendations for the use of dogs in assisting learning. Educational Review, 69(4), 435–450.


Goddard, A. T., & Gilmer, M. J. (2015). The role and impact of animals with pediatric patients. Pediatric Nursing, 41(2), 65–71.


Lass-Hennemann, J., Schäfer, S. K., Römer, S., Holz, E., Streb, M., & Michael, T. (2018). Therapy Dogs as a Crisis Intervention After Traumatic Events? – An Experimental Study. Frontiers in Psychology, 9.


Machová, K., Kejdanová, P., Bajtlerová, I., Procházková, R., Svobodová, I., & Mezian, K. (2018). Canine-assisted Speech Therapy for Children with Communication Impairments: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Anthrozoös, 31(5), 587–598. doi:10.1080/08927936.2018.1505339 


Martin, F., & Farnum, J. (2002). Animal-Assisted Therapy for Children with Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24(6), 657–670. doi:10.1177/019394502320555403 


Odendaal, J. S. ., & Meintjes, R. . (2003). Neurophysiological Correlates of Affiliative Behaviour between Humans and Dogs. The Veterinary Journal, 165(3), 296–301.


Schuck, S. E. B., Emmerson, N. A., Fine, A. H., & Lakes, K. D. (2013). Canine-Assisted Therapy for Children With ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 19(2), 125–137. doi:10.1177/1087054713502080 


Winkle, M., & Jackson, L. (2012). Animal kindness best practices for the animal-assisted therapy practitioner. OT Practice, 16(6), 10–14.

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