Animal-Assisted Therapy: The Therapeutic Role of Animals in Rehabilitative Care

Animal-assisted therapy is any type of therapy that uses the service of an animal to improve the life of a patient. The animal being used for animal therapy can be any species, although frequently used animals include dogs, horses, and dolphins.

The animals used in animal-assisted therapy are trained, evaluated, and licensed to work in a healthcare setting. The animal is trained along with a handler who is then paired with that animal to facilitate therapy. Most often these animals and their handlers work in rehabilitation facilities.

The Benefits of Animal-assisted therapy


Emotional Benefit of Animal-assisted therapy

Animal-assisted therapy animals can be used to provide emotional support to patients in a wide range of circumstances. Some of these circumstances include:

  • Grief counseling where patients are encouraged to talk about their grief while emotionally bonding with a therapy animal.
  • Dementia patients can be encouraged to express their emotions while in the company of a therapy animal which serves to relieve agitation.
  • Chronically depressed patients can be encouraged to overcome negative emotions and take part in daily activities through the use of a therapy animal.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferers can be encouraged to leave the safety of their home through the nudging of a therapy animal.


Social Benefit of Animal-assisted therapy

Social barriers often present with a variety of illnesses, experiences, and situations. Therapy animals can help these patients to overcome their social barriers in a variety of ways including:

  • Sexual assault victims can be encouraged to talk with others when comforted by the presence of a therapy animal.
  • Special needs children can overcome social difficulties by bonding over the presence of a therapy animal.
  • Individuals with stunted social skills can learn acceptable social skills through the nudging of a therapy animal.
  • Nursing home patients can be discouraged from being antisocial and isolated through the service of a therapy animal.


Cognitive Benefit of Animal-assisted therapy

Cognitive impairment can cause many obstacles for individuals of all ages, but the service of therapy animals can be beneficial in overcoming those difficulties. Some ways that these animals can be beneficial include:

  • Dementia patients can access better cognitive functioning simply through the calming presence of a therapy animal.
  • Cognitively delayed children can be encouraged to perform tasks by the inclusion of a therapy animal.
  • Tactile stimulation from a therapy animal can promote relearning of basic skills in brain-damaged patients.
  • Therapy animals can stimulate the imagination, something which is beneficial for the entire spectrum of cognitively impaired individuals.


Physical Benefit of Animal-assisted therapy

The physical benefits of animal therapy are perhaps the most obvious. Therapy animals can be trained to perform a vast array of specialized skills to assist patients. These skills include:

  • Patients with limited reach can be encouraged to reach for the therapy animal and push past their limits.
  • Traumatic accident victims can be assisted in walking again by animals providing motivation and encouraging endurance.
  • Individuals with muscle weakness can sit up with the assistance of a therapy animal nudge
  • Children with mobility limitations can be encouraged to move with the enticement of a therapy animal.

Examples of Animal-assisted therapy

Each animal used in animal therapy holds the potential for growth in their patients. While all of the animals used in animal-assisted therapy programs offer such potential for growth, different animals tend to excel in different areas of therapy.

Canine Therapy

Canine Therapy

Dogs provide excellent motivation to patients in all areas of recovery and treatment, however, they are exceptionally beneficial to patients with physical, emotional, and social needs.

Of all the different animal-assisted therapy animals, dogs are the most versatile by nature of their ability to work in any situation and their long history of working one on one with humans. Unlike larger and less domesticated animals, dogs are exceptionally eager to please and tend to fit more seamlessly into the “human world”.

Equine Therapy

Equine Therapy

While horses certainly cannot walk into an occupational therapist’s office, they do offer a certain unique freedom to patients that dogs cannot offer. For example, for individuals bound to a wheelchair but seeking independence and freedom, the ability to become mobile on the back of a horse, is empowering.

Horses are exceptionally beneficial for patients requiring physical, cognitive, and emotional growth.

Dolphin Therapy

Dolphin Therapy

Dolphin therapy is still something of a luxury, but for those who can afford the opportunity, the benefits are astounding. Most significantly, animal-assisted therapists who work with dolphins find that children with developmental delays, traumatic injuries, or emotional limitations grow from therapy with dolphins.

Dolphin therapy, particularly wild dolphin therapy, seems to offer something almost magical to patients who have been labeled as “unreachable”. Few can say what it is about this type of therapy that fills in the “missing link” for these patients, but there is no doubt that dolphins offer something that other therapy animals don’t.

What it Takes to be a Therapy Animal for Animal-assisted therapy

Training and licensure of animals used for animal therapy depend on the role the animal is going to play in specific therapy regimes. There are, however, some basic training certifications these animals must obtain.


What it Takes to be a Therapy Dog for Animal-assisted therapy

Basic Obedience Training – Basic obedience training is a must for any dog bound for therapy. This is the very bottom rung of the training ladder, though, and meant only to prepare the dog for more rigorous training. This basic training teaches foundation commands such as “sit” “stay” and “heel”.

Advanced Obedience Training – Advanced obedience training builds on the foundation laid in basic obedience training. More complex tasks such as off-leash work and recall.

Canine Good Citizen Training and Testing – The CGC training and testing program is an official program that licenses dogs as “good citizens”. This label means that these dogs are well-mannered and capable of exhibiting positive behavior both at home and in public.

Animal-assisted therapy Certification – With successful CGC licensure, a dog will then go on to take part in animal-assisted therapy certification. There is no central certification for animal-assisted therapy animals, rather, many different educational and training institutions offer their own training and certification programs. In these programs, dogs will learn specific tasks necessary to their intended role in therapy. These various programs offer different levels of training for both animals and their handlers. The cost of these training programs can vary from $10 for simple testing for in home trained dogs to $5,500 for complete coursework and training at the Animal Behavior Institute.


What it Takes to be a Therapy Horse Animal-assisted therapy

Unlike dogs who have a more set structure for training, horses have slightly less structure to their training program.

English or Western Schooling – These schooling methods are preferred for horses going into animal-assisted therapy work. For a horse to be truly trained in either of these schools, they require basic, intermediate, and advanced training classes. During these classes, the horse will learn how to carry themselves, how to follow commands, how to accept a rider, and how to accept being handled.

Experience – Horses destined for animal therapy work should have experience with a wide variety of stimuli and exhibit good manners in various environments. This means that the horse should have a good temperament, not easily be startled, be comfortable with being ridden and handles, and remain calm in any situation.

Animal-assisted therapy Schooling and Certification – Schooling and certification for horses intended for animal-assisted therapy is, again, not centralized. This means that there are various training schools and certification programs around the world that prepare these animals for therapy work. Most training schools only train horses that will be working in their program. Once accepted into a program, the horses are paired up with trainers/handlers who will teach the horses the specific skills necessary for them to excel. These horses can then be licensed by one of the various equine therapy licensing boards after testing.


What it Takes to be a Therapy Dolphin Animal-assisted therapy

Animal therapy with dolphins is perhaps one of the most unusual types of animal-assisted therapy. Since dolphin therapy is so very limited in terms of location and licensure to even keep dolphins in captivity, the training process is quite different.

A large part of dolphin assisted therapy relies on the dolphin’s natural interaction with individuals. This type of interaction is highlighted in “wild dolphin” swim programs that offer animal-assisted therapy. These types of programs are often advocated for their mental health benefits as well as for their refusal to keep wild animals in captivity.

The majority of dolphin-assisted therapy programs, however, use captive held dolphins that have been trained to perform specific tasks on cue. These dolphins generally work with one or two trainers who use food based rewards to train the animals to perform behaviors such as swimming up beside a child and remaining in place. Depending on the behavior being taught, it can take a dolphin as little as a day or as much as a year to master a task.

To date, there is no licensure or certification for dolphins trained for animal-assisted therapy. In most instances, it is the handler of the dolphin who is trained for specific types of therapy rather than the animal.

The Difference Between Animal-assisted therapy and Other Therapy Animals

The Difference Between Animal-assisted therapy and Other Therapy Animals

There are many different applications of animals in a therapeutic setting. This makes it quite easy to confuse the various roles that these animals play in healing. There are three main subtypes of therapy animals, these are recognized as therapeutic visitation animals, animal-assisted therapy animals and facility therapy animals.

Therapy animals should not be confused with service animals, psychiatric service animals, or emotional support animals.

Therapeutic Visitation Animals

Therapeutic visitation animals are animals that are brought to nursing homes, hospitals, rehabilitation units, jails, prisons, etc. to provide motivation, comfort, and cheer to individuals in these institutions. Most often, these animals are pets that have been licensed by their owners for pet therapy. These animals are not trained to perform specific tasks aside from comfort and motivate patients.

Animal-assisted therapy Animals

Animal-assisted therapy animals are animals that are trained to perform specific tasks to assist occupational or physical therapists in advancing patients therapy. These animals most often work specifically in rehabilitation facilities and while they may provide non-physical services for patients, a large portion of their work is physical.

Facility Therapy Animals

Facility therapy animals are animals that live in facilities where they are required to provide a wide variety of services to patients. These animals are handled by staff members and most often serve to keep patients occupied and motivated. Facility therapy animals are most frequently found in nursing homes.


Animal-assisted therapy uses licensed therapy animals to assist in patient care. These animals are trained to assist occupational and physical therapists in helping patients to meet recovery goals. Whether focused on patients with emotional, social, cognitive, or physical impediments, animal-assisted therapy has been scientifically proven to provide significant benefits to those in need.