Animal Assisted Therapy

Animal Assisted Therapy

A Sociological Analysis and its Correlation to Omaha.

By: Abby Goetz

The role animals play in the lives of humans goes far beyond survival needs. Relationships formed between human and animals, referred to as the human-animal bond, provide significant physical, psychological, and physiological benefits to human well-being. The human-animal bond may be formed in various ways including companion animals, also known as pets, and animal-assisted therapy. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s Committee defines the human-animal bond as “a mutually beneficial dynamic relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both.” Included in this definition is “emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, other animals, and the environment”. Animal assisted therapies are often designed to improve adjustment and functioning children and to decrease various psychological conditions. The goal of animal assisted therapies is to teach about animals, build self-esteem, develop empathy, develop responsibility, overcome loneliness, provide social support, improve human-animal relations and bonding, and to reduce cruelty to animals. Research done has shown benefits of decreasing heart rate and blood pressure and increasing skin temperature, indicating relaxation from petting a companion dog. Other studies suggest that people experiencing stress, either acutely or chronically, may benefit from short term interactions with their pet that serve to focus attention away from the stressor to a more pleasurable, calming interaction. Animals involved in AAT include, but are not limited to, dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, dolphins, birds, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, and fish. Most commonly used in previous research is canine-assisted therapy which involves dogs and is the most common type of AAT. Canine- assisted therapy is used with a wide variety of populations and is found in both group and individual therapy settings. The interaction between dogs and clients is an important aspect in canine-assisted therapy.

Individuals Who can Benefit from Animal Assisted Therapy
Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome
Substance Abuse
Attachment Issues
Trauma/Loss Situations /Grief
Low Self-Esteem
Anxiety disorders
Behavioral/Emotional Concerns
Depression/Bi-Polar Disorder/Anxiety
Abuse/Trauma/Pain (Physical, Emotional and/or Mental)
Social and Relationship Issues
Eating Disorders


Animals in a therapeutic setting offer similar benefits to those of animal companionship. Animals in a therapeutic setting may serve as a catalyst for discussion between therapist and client or in group therapy animals may serve as an ice-breaker or discussion topic amongst group members. Animals may make a therapeutic setting seem less threatening and more inviting. Environments involving animals appear to be more friendly and comfortable to incoming clients and bring a sense of security and warmth to the therapy setting. Holding or touching an animal may act as a physical comfort, can be soothing, and can instill a sense of safety. Personal development, such as speech and communication skills, can be enhanced by partnership with a therapy animal.

Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy
Animal Assisted Therapy serves as an effective icebreaker with withdrawn and uncooperative clients.
Studies have shown that stroking and animal helps reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
Interaction with animals helps in bringing individuals out of thier world and into ours.
Having an animals nose nudging into thier hands makes them focus on the present.
Therapy animals encourage interaction between client-therapist and client–outside world.
Therapy animals have a way of accepting people without qualifications.
 When a client gets unconditional love from an animal they give better responses during therapy.
Having a warm, furry animal to stroke and hug is therapeutic to clients who are not comfortable being touched by people.
Watching a pet jump around and play can be relaxing and fun for even people who don’t like animals
Receiving unconditional love and affection from an animal can teach clients especially children to develop nurturing skills, which they may not of been able to learn from people.
For seniors, the benefits of a furry companion can be life-changing. Walking a dog is great cardiovascular exercise, but just the simple act of caring for a pet-petting, brushing, feeding-provides both mild activity and a means to stay engaged with the world.


Redefer & Goodman were pioneers in the scientific approach of the animal’s benefits for children with autism. They proposed that dogs – and by extension, all animals – are powerful stimuli that may compensate for multi-sensory deficits of children with autism (e.g. visual, tactile, auditory differences). Observations were performed on a group of children with a therapist. Encounters placed without the animal and then a dog was included and the last sessions were without an animal (i.e. pre-and post-treatment analysis). The “dog session” was structured into three parts. The therapist was passive at both beginning and end while in the middle of the session, he encouraged interactions between children and dogs. The results showed an increase in children’s social behaviors (e.g. more interaction with both therapist and dog) and a decrease in children’s withdrawal, only in the presence of the dog. These modifications blurred with time, although Redefer & Goodman noticed that they could still be seen – but in a smaller proportion – one month after stopping the sessions with the dog, suggesting that these improvements were not stable over time without the animal’s presence. Unfortunately no control group was used in this study and the authors provide no detail on the observed behaviors (i.e. what are the precise interactions with the dog or the therapist and are they identical?). In addition, children were described as “displaying autistic features” (i.e. social withdrawal, idiosyncratic habits, unusual or absent language) but no diagnosis has been done or, at least, this information had not been mentioned.

The chart below shows how animal assisted therapies have evolved over time starting with the Redefer and Goodman studies.



The city of Omaha offers a lot of different assortments of animal assisted therapies. There is a place called BonaFide Dog Academy. They own Delta Society-registered therapy animals and volunteer in a number of community programs in the Omaha Metro area. They also help others become registered to volunteer with their pets. Delta Society training programs are offered three to four times per year. They also offer group classes, in-home private sessions, behavioral consultations and online training opportunities.


Another GREAT Omaha area therapy center is Scatter Joy Acres. Their slogan is, “A Place of Rescue, A Journey to Peace”. They rescue, feed, and care for neglected, hungry, and abandoned animals to create healthy relationships in the Omaha community. They focus their animal assisted therapies to at risk youth and seniors/veterans. On their website, they explain that children naturally bond with animals. The use this natural interaction to teach children how to behave and socialize with other people. The children that are abused usually turn their hurt around and abuse others. This program focuses on teaching empathy and turns these kids into “protectors instead of abusers”. The animals at this facility are often abandon, neglected, or worse. The children relate their past with the past of the animals; they realize that change is possible. Next they realize that the animals are in a safe environment, and then they feel safe also and start to open up. They state on their website that, “We believe that animals, with their unconditional love and non-judgmental attitude, can often reach kids more deeply and effectively than people can. As the children learn to love the animals, they simultaneously learn to love a part of themselves. As they learn to understand the animals, they learn to understand a part of themselves.”

As for working with seniors Scatter Joy Acres brings the animals to them due to the fact that many senior living communities do not allow pets. They say that the benefits animal assisted therapy offers to senates is life-changing because not only is it good physically, but mentally also! Pets make the elderly feel needed, and that feeling can be translated to a greater sense of purpose and self worth. They state, “During what can be a lonely time of life, the unconditional love of a cherished dog, goat, llama or donkey can be a bridge to more socialization with others, lowered stress, mental stimulation and a renewed interest in life”.

A lot of veterans come back from combat with many symptoms of mental illness such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, and addictions. The effects of symptoms affect not only the veteran but relationships with others. Their interventions include, “social learning theory and animal assisted therapy (AAT) as a mean of providing education, changing stereotypes, reducing stigma, and encouraging change from non-judgmental helpers (ie animals).  With training and treatment it is hoped that veterans’ symptoms will be alleviated and healthier lives can become reality”.

Another association in Omaha devoted to animal assisted therapy is Paws for Friendships. They are a smaller group in Omaha started their program 22 years ago. It is a non-profit organization of volunteers sharing the unconditional love of their personal pets with people in need all throughout Omaha. They enjoy going to nursing homes and hospitals, but will go any where they are needed.

Another association similar to Paws for Friendships is called Midlands Pet Therapy. Established in  1995, Midland Pet Therapy visit places such as assisted living, memory support, skilled nursing/extended care facilities, hospitals, college campuses, and special education classrooms. On their website, they mentioned that alls the members are registered and insured through Therapy Dogs, Inc. The Therapy Dogs, Inc’s mission statement is, “It is a goal of ATD to provide registration, support, and insurance for members who are involved in volunteer animal assisted activities. These activities include, but are not limited to, visits to hospitals, special needs centers, schools, and nursing homes. Our objective is to form a network of caring individuals who are willing to share their special animals in order to bring happiness and cheer to people, young and old alike”. No other websites for Omaha animal assisted therapy centers stated that their dogs are registered or insured.

The Nebraska Humane Society offers a program called Project PETS (Pet Enhanced Therapy for Seniors). This program works to adopt pets to area care facilities and nursing homes. All the animals placed in a therapeutic setting undergo extensive training and socialization. The website did not mention how they were trained, and when called, they didn’t answer the questions either. This program doesn’t seem too involved in the community because their was no way to contact them even when the Humane Society was called and questioned about the program.  The only information offered about the program was on the official Human Society website. Surprisingly the Humane Society didn’t offer any other therapy programs which was quite surprising considering it is the fifth oldest Humane Society in the United States.

In conclusion, I found in my research that Omaha does offer many types of animal assisted therapy. The only thing the city lacked was offering anything but canine-assisted therapy. As mentioned before, other animals such as cats, horses, donkeys, dolphins, birds, gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, and fish are great also! There a a great number of other centers for animal assisted therapy in Omaha that were not mentioned. Surprisingly the Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo  and Aquarium does not provide any animal assisted therapy programs. Animal assisted therapy is very sociological in nature because the aim is to change people’s social behavior though the interaction with animals. A diverse range of people can apply animal assisted therapy to their professional careers including: nurses, teachers, counselors, physical therapist, and of corse sociologists.Bibliography

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