AAT is a modality of therapy where an animal is involved throughout the therapeutic process to assist the psychologist in working with an individual client or within a group setting to reach a specific treatment goal. These are called Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI), which is different to the more commonly known purpose where merely the presence of an animal is therapeutic for the persons involved (e.g. visiting hospitals, nursing homes etc).
It is a well researched phenomenon that the mere presence of a well-trained canine can have an immediate positive effect, improving mood and reducing state anxiety. The presence of a therapy dog is known to assist in building the therapeutic relationship between psychologist and client. Partially due to this social lubrication effect, there are better engagement and retention rates in AAT, which are essential to reach positive outcomes. At times therapy can be distressing, the presence of a therapy dog also allows the client to be soothed on a kinetic level, as the client is able to pat and cuddle the dog to assist in relaxation if desired.
Recent research has claimed AAT to be the single most effective treatment for depression in adolescents. It has also been found that AAI’s are beneficial in the treatment of low self-esteem, emotion recognition and regulation, anger management, improving self-confidence, facilitating insight and relationship skills and behavioural reflections. Therapy dogs are also used extensively and effectively in ASD populations, teaching empathy and social skills. Therapy dogs can also be helpful for treating dog phobias.