By Sherry Warner
One of the oldest relationships on the planet is the human/animal bond. Those of us who are fortunate enough to share our lives with pets know what they bring to our lives — a sense of joy and unconditional love. And nowhere can you see the significance of this bond better than in the healing modality of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT).
Kyla Rae, president of Chimo Animal Assisted Wellness & Learning Society, an Edmonton-based non-profit that assists in the development, planning, and implementation of AAT in a wide variety of settings, describes AAT as a goal directed intervention where the animal is an integral part of a structured treatment program.
“There are so many different situations you can put this adjunct therapy in place,” says Kyla. AAT can be used in a therapeutic setting, in educational institutions or as part of a physical therapy or occupational therapy program, she explains.
When psychologists and psychiatrists use AAT in their practices, the presence of the animal, whether the patient interacts with the animal or not, helps create a sense of trust, safety and security. “The patient sees that the animal is comfortable with the therapist and that the animal trusts them,” says Kyla. “That helps create that trust in a relationship that is dependent on trust.”
In a school setting, for example, with children who have ADD or autism, AAT may help encourage the behaviours teachers are looking for. “In that setting, if things get too rowdy or uncomfortable, the animal will walk away so then the kids realize that the dog is moving away and they will start to calm down and the animal will come back.”
Both the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary as well as other post-secondary institutions across Canada bring in dogs to help students relieve stress during exam time.
AAT can also be used in a physical or occupational therapy setting to help patients heal after an injury or surgery. “Often with seniors or people who have had severe trauma and needed surgery, they get to a point in their treatment where they plateau and don’t want to do anything that is asked of them in terms of rehab,” explains Kyla. But if there is a dog around, the therapist may suggest taking the dog for a walk to get the patient moving again.
Whatever setting AAT is used in, the goals are chosen by the professional — whether it’s a librarian, social worker, nurse, teacher, psychologist or psychiatrist — and their client or patient depending on the situation.
Straja Linder King is a board certified, registered clinical art therapist and a pioneer in art and animal-assisted psychotherapy. With the assistance of her two Shiloh Shepherds, Twillow Rose and Tala Rain, Straja counsels patients experiencing all types of challenges from grief to stress, developmental or learning disabilities and addiction to those suffering disease such as cancer or Aspergers Syndrome.
“AAT is a wonderful treatment modality that is effective because it’s non-verbal,” says Straja. “I love that I’ve merged the animal assisted therapy with the art therapy because that gives me a language that’s older than words.”
Animals are incredible because they’re totally unbiased, they’re non-judgmental and they don’t care about your value and belief system, she says. If people are shut down, grief stricken and haven’t showered for days, there is something incredible about an animal being non-judgmental, explains Straja. “They can make a connection with the animal without rejection and criticism.
“If you are in the darkest night of your soul, brushing your teeth is just not going to be high on the order. It’s all you can do to get your butt out of bed and actually put some clothes on,” she adds. “The dogs help build trust in the therapeutic alliance so we can roll our sleeves up and do some of the deeper work.”
There are many benefits to patients of AAT. Through all of the research that has been done on this kind of treatment, there are five benefits to patients that studies consistently reveal, says Kyla. They are reduced anxiety, increased social interaction, increased attendance, increased motivation and reduced depression.
In Straja’s practice and depending on the patient, Twillow and Tala help them understand healthy boundaries and the sacredness of play, enhance their social skills and learn how to communicate better and boost their confidence and self esteem.
“The animals create a positive relationship and that’s (the patient’s) first segue into safely working towards reengaging in society and communicating,” says Straja. “And it’s one of the first steps to initiate closer relationships with people.”
Not every dog is an ideal candidate for AAT. Dogs suitable to work in this field can be a purebred or a mixed breed but there are some innate qualities that make the best animal assisted therapy dogs. The dogs have to really like people, be friendly, have an even temperament and not be afraid of strangers or new situations, says Kyla. They need to be obedient to whoever is handling the animal. The can be very social in nature, but have to be able to focus on what they are there to do, she adds.
“We have lots and lots of rescue dogs, which make a fantastic example to use for the people you are working with,” says Kyla. “With some of these dogs and the situations they have come out of they’re still able to come and do this kind of really important work and do it confidently even though they suffered.”
Straja sums up the benefits of AAT when she says: “Animals make us better human beings. They are the best diet and medical plan there is.”
Chimo Animal Assisted Therapy:
Chimo AAT was founded in 1999 by Dennis Anderson, who at that time, was the Alberta president of the Canadian Mental Health Association. The organization was initially called The Chimo Project, and was named after Dennis’s animal companion, Chimo, a Blue Heeler/Labrador cross.
Dennis personally experienced the psychological benefits of human-animal interactions, and he aspired to obtain evidence that animals may be beneficial in the treatment of persons with mental health concerns.
The name “Chimo” comes from the Inuit toast for “good cheer”, which is what the organization hopes to bring to those suffering from mental illness. Chimo’s mission is to develop and make available effective animal assisted therapeutic services to health and social services providers. Chimo AAT supports effective AAT through program development, education and research evaluation.
Here is a run down of the work Chimo does:
• Recruit and certify therapy animals including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, and mini-horses
• Recruit and train volunteers with qualified animals
• Train a wide variety of therapists to use animals to help their clients
• Facilitate ongoing AAT programs in our community
• Provide services to assist new facilities in creating and sustaining their own AAT programs
For more information visit www.chimoproject.ca
Strawberry Moon Counselling
In addition to offering art and animal assisted therapy at her Calgary-based Strawberry Moon Art Studio, Straja Linder King teaches two full credit courses in the Addictions Program in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Lethbridge: Introduction to art therapy with animal assistance and Merging animal assisted therapy and art therapy.
Straja also offers a number of workshops including Living On Artfully: Healing From Loss; Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out; Animal Communication; and Soul Wisdom: Deeper Meaning Through the Arts to name a few.
For more information visit www.strawberrymooncounselling.com