Animal Assisted Therapy

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By Dr. Sue Chan


Something magical happens when a person touches an animal. I have seen a grown man burst into uncontrollable giggles after holding a baby chick.  In another interaction I watched an elderly civil engineer who was so excited about my sheep that he climbed onto a bench just to get some leaves to feed them. 

Everything seems to shift when interacting with an animal. Researchers conduct study after study about the efficacy of animal-assisted therapy, yet seeing it in action can convince any observer that interacting with animals, if done with sensitivity, can be beneficial for people.





WHAT IS ANIMAL-­ASSISTED THERAPY? Animal-­assisted therapy can take many forms. There are programs conducted where clinically­ trained counselors conduct exercises  with their clients. There are also volunteer­-based groups that  visit to care facilities with certified therapy animals.  These groups include Pet Partners (Delta Society.), Love on a Leash, and Therapy Dogs International, to name a few. Just providing a pet has been scientifically shown to provide benefits to the elderly, children with autism, children who have been physically and/or sexually abused, veterans with PTSD, and adults with stress or depression.

EFFECTIVENESS: It takes more than interfacing with just any animal to make a difference.  For example, families will get a dog because they hear it will help their autistic child and expect this will be the answer to their famiy troubles.  However, they do not realize that the care and training of a dog will add another layer of stress to an already difficult family situation. An animal needs to be matched with compatible energy levels to a person in order to meet the needs of that individual in therapy.

 The animal should be interested and engaged with the person. With a therapy team, the handler should be in tune to both the animal and their person, able to gauge reactions of happiness, boredom, fear, and address every level of interaction that may arise. When the person opens up to the interaction, the handler or counselor should take the opportunity to engage the person in conversation. A conversation that starts about the animal can  lead to more personal topics and deeper discussions. If behavior issues  need to be addressed, the observation leads to an ideal opportunity to ask the person why they are behaving a certain way that is causing problems.



THE PROGRAM AT PHOENIX RANCH: We take a subtle approach with a warm, welcoming environment. We have chickens, ducks, sheep, cattle, horses, pigs, parrots, cockatiels, a llama, and of course, dogs and cats. Some are rescues while others were selected to provide learning opportunities for our volunteers and visitors. The animals are used only if they choose to interact, we never force them. The wide variety of species at our ranch makes it more likely that a person will find an animal that  resonates with them. For those who live in a stressful situation, this is an opportunity to not be guarded, to let down the wall so that fulfilling  interactions can happen with our animals. The animals are actively trained to be outgoing and friendly. We allow people to feel the warmth of soft fur gliding through their fingers or the sleek texture of feathers, offer food to animals who are more than willing to accept some tasty treats, and we allow people the opportunity to experience firsthand how an animal trusts and responds to these interactions.

It is an opportunity for people to find joy in interacting with both the animal and the people in their company, an ideal family­bonding experience. For those who are inclined, we set up work projects that are suitable for their level, such as feeding,grooming, or exercising the animals. This gives them a sense that they can accomplish something while at the same time receiving  positive feedback from both the animals and people around them.

In letters and testimonials, you will find comments about how relaxed people feel, how they notice their withdrawn or rebellious children act so differently when they are here, and how happy the animals are. Parents and counselors of those with autism have commented on how autistic individuals  are much more interactive with people whether it be talking, chatting, or merely seeking  the company of others after they interact with the animals. A person who knew some of the foster children have commented on how angry and defiant they’ve seen the children at school but at the ranch they see a very different child. When people leave here, they have positive memories to carry home with them. Positive memories remind them that they are human and worthy when faced with harsh times in the outside world.

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EMPATHY & COMPASSION: We focus on the individual visitors while they are here. Their needs, their fears, their excitement is the most important thing at that moment. For that time at least, someone is listening to them. We do not force them to do something until they are ready. When especially children overcome a fear, the pride makes their faces glow. We find what sparks the light in their eyes and encourage them to indulge in something THEY want to do. There is no set program, no time frame or measurement of progress. We teach gentle handling, patience, empathy, and compassion, the same way we treat the animals.

EMPOWERMENT: At Phoenix Ranch, we take the position that physical, emotional or intellectual "limitations" do not define the individual.  They are just one factor that will need to be considered when undertaking activities. Just as some of our animal residents have overcame their “limitations” (we have two parrots with no feet), we try to help people see that they too can do things in spite of their “limitations”. One family brought a teenager who was severely affected by cerebral palsy. Throughout most of the visit, he had a scowl on his face as he slouched in his wheelchair. On one occasion, when we had the other children take their turn riding Cocoa the pony, we had the family members hoist this boy up onto Cocoa and he got a pony ride with 4 people supporting him on his ride. . He let his family know how happy he was by blowing bubbles and smiling. This was his family’s reward and will remain an unforgettable image of what “family support” is and should be.

TRAINING/BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION PHILOSOPHY: I have worked successfully with animals that were relinquished because they were so aggressive as well as children who were said to have serious behavior issues. We are compassionate but not naïve. Animals and people can hurt each other, intentionally or by accident. The harsh realities of what people (and animals as well) can inflict on others is in our consciousness and   this will be kept in mind in all our interactions.

We respect boundaries and expect respect in return.  However, we will reprimand a person or an animal treating  another  in a hurtful way or engaging in behavior that is dangerous.  Everybody and every animal needs to feel protected here.  We believe in active training which is only punitive when softer corrections or multiple communication efforts  are not effective. This is always followed up with a concerted effort to find the underlying cause of the misbehavior. It is a strategy that has allowed us to keep our animals in a fairly free-ranging interspecies collection.

IN CONCLUSION:  Animals can be successfully used as a tool in therapy work. It is only as good as the people using them and takes trial and error to learn how to do it well. The positive feelings may only be temporal, lasting just a little while after the experience, but they can open doors long-lasting and improved communication patterns. It is up to the parents, counselors and animal handlers to walk through.