Dawn Oakley OTR/L and Gail Bardin, OTR/L

According to journalist Odean Cusack, “Anyone who has ever owned a pet will readily verify the benefits of associating with furred, feathered, or finned friends. Animals are fun to be with and comforting to hold. Their antics inspire humor and a sense of carefreeness, a return to childhood with its buoyant spirits. Caring for pets encourages nurturance, responsibility, and adherence to a daily schedule. Pets enable owners to reach outside themselves and to put aside fears of an uncertain future. Pets live in the immediate moment, and interacting with them makes us keenly aware of the present with all its joys and idiosyncrasies.”

For children with special needs, the ability to interact with a dog, cat, or other furry friend can have a very positive impact upon their quality of life. Interacting with a pet can sometimes enhance recovery following a serious illness. It can change behavior, create a sense of responsibility and even improve a child’s ability to participate in therapeutic treatment leading to achievement in relation to identified goals and objectives. Children are often extremely trusting and easily achieve a level of intimacy with animals. This special bond contributes to pets’ effectiveness as co-therapists.

The potential benefits of animal assisted therapy for children with special needs has been embraced by the Occupational Therapy staff at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children. The use of animal assisted therapy began as a pilot program in December 1998. The program was initiated with a monthly session using one dog and a small group of children. The program has evolved rapidly during the past two years to include several dogs visiting St. Mary’s Hospital for Children three or four times per month. Therapy is still conducted on a group level but an individual component has been added to include visits directly to the patient’s bedside.

During the session, each child works with their occupational therapist either in their wheelchair or on a therapy mat arranged in a circle. The therapist uses a variety of treatment techniques to enable the child to work on specific identified goals while interacting with the dog.

For example, a child recovering from a traumatic brain injury experiences considerable difficulty dressing and grooming him/herself due to the loss of function in one arm. The therapist may ask the child to reach out with the weak arm to pet, brush or even feed the dog. The therapist may add a wrist weight to the weak arm in order to develop strength, or use an adapted brush with a special handle to assist the child in holding the brush. The child becomes motivated and excited to participate in treatment; thus helping to achieve treatment goals quicker and easier.

The occupational therapist conducts the therapy session using the dog as a modality to facilitate the development of skills needed by the child to achieve independent functioning in the areas of self-help, play and learning. The children react with excitement and enthusiasm, always looking forward to the next visit from their “furry therapist.” The children are also highly motivated to interact with the dog, allowing the occupational therapist to facilitate the use of skills needed for independence in such areas as: dressing; grooming; play skills; cognitive skills and fine motor skills. The occupational therapists involve the children in motivating activities that help them achieve, to the greatest extent possible, the self-help, play and learning skills appropriate for their individual age level.

“As we accept animals as potential healers, as major contributors to our health, happiness, wellness, and vitality, can we in good conscience continue indiscriminately to exploit them and dispose of them at will,” wonders author Odean Cusack. Dr. Albert Schweitzer noted for his humanitarian and scientific efforts on behalf of people in need of medical care once said, that we need a new and wiser concept of animals. If we continue to accept the potential value and benefits of utilizing pets in the provision of occupational therapy services for children with special needs in such settings as within the Animal Assisted Therapy Program at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children, we may long last establish Schweitzer’s vision.

For additional information about the Assisted Therapy Program at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children you can contact: Gail Bardin, OTR/L, Department of Occupational Therapy, St. Mary’s Hospital for Children, 29-01 216th Street, Bayside, New York 11360 (718) 281-8801

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