Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) involves to use of animals in therapy to improve a patient’s social, emotional, or cognitive functioning. Additionally, the use of a pet within a therapy setting has been a proven way of increasing rapport between a patient and therapist.
Even the simple act of having a pet can be known to improve one’s health, confidence, and relaxation. In addition, many of our students on the autism spectrum, or with other learning differences, form special bonds with animals.
Zoe, a 4 year old cocker spaniel mix, rescue dog, has been a “mascot” and therapy dog at CIP Berkeley for the past two terms. Zoe is the companion of clinician, Barbara Large, L.C.S.W.
As CIP students became familiar with Zoe’s perspective and needs, social thinking skills were being practiced, such as learning non-verbal communication, body awareness, perspective taking and patience. As the students and Zoe developed trusting relationships, which happened rather quickly, her role as social thinking instructor transformed to therapy dog.
Entering into the program in September/October was a new experience for Zoe and one that required some patience from staff and students alike. At the beginning, Zoe would bark when people knocked on the door and in addition, students had to learn the best way to approach Zoe, who like many other “rescue” dogs, does not like direct eye contact or quick hand movements from new people.
Students who work with the other CIP clinicians love her as much as those who work directly with Barbara and Zoe in therapy. One student noted that “…even though Zoe is a rescue dog, she has rescued others who have experienced some hardships like being bullied or criticized in their lives.”
Zoe loves the students and they love her. She runs up to them with her tail wagging eagerly awaiting their voice instructions, face-to-face contact, and most importantly the petting. She has assured confidentiality; she is non-judgmental and is eager to be a friend.
Here are some other comments from students:
“She reminds me of my dog and it makes me feel more at home when I am with her.”
“Petting Zoe reminds me of my cat at home.”
“Zoe helped me to calm down when I was having an emotionally difficult time.”
“I love having Zoe in therapy. She’s very sweet, and it just feels good to be able to hold her and have her sit in my lap.”
It is not unusual to notice this scene: Zoe comes to work in the morning and there are students in the lounge. The students enthusiastically, and sometimes in unison, call out, “Zoe!!” when they see her. She responds by running up to the students with a wag of the tale and a smile on her face. Pure JOY!