By: Cate Burnette

As pet parents, we know that positive interaction between our pets and ourselves improves our physical, emotional and psychological well-being. For those individuals with physical, emotional, psychological or mental disorders, communing with animals in the form of animal assisted therapy can have a beneficial effect that changes their entire lives for the better.

So how does assisted animal therapy work? And what would it take to for YOUR pet to succeed as a therapy animal?

Therapy animal, service animal, working animal – what is the difference?

Many people don’t realize that there are major differences between ‘service’ animals, ‘therapy’ animals and ‘working’ animals.

  • Service animals provide assistance to individuals with disabilities (mobility, sight, hearing, and other physical and/or psychiatric issues). Typically, service animals – mainly dogs or miniature horses – begin their early training at around 6 to 9 months of age with a foster family and enter training for specific tasks at around a year and a half old. It may take several years for these animals to become fully able to work to their full potential with their human partners and to achieve certification.
  • Therapy animals come in different species and breeds and are trained to provide comfort, affection and entertainment to people in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, schools and retirement homes. These working animals are often used in therapeutic environments teaching children who are experiencing learning disabilities, as stress-reducers for victims of accidents, crimes and natural disasters or crisis situations, and working with children and adults with physical and emotional issues.
  • Because Equine Assisted Therapy is becoming increasing popular serving the physical and emotional needs of military veterans, children and adults with autism and psychiatric and psychological disorders, we will discuss these service animals in detail further along in this blog.
  • Working animals are those animals bred and trained to perform jobs, including guarding property and livestock, pulling sleds, plows, and wagons, performing water rescues, search and rescue services, herding cattle and sheep, assisting hunters, detecting explosives and narcotics, and working with K-9 police units.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy improves a patient’s physical, mental, emotional and social functioning with the aid of animals. Depending on the needs of the patient, many different animals can be used in therapy, including horses (also called equine-assisted therapy), dogs (called canine-assisted therapy), dolphins, llamas, rabbits and other animals.

Taking place in a variety of settings (prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, therapeutic riding centers, mental health facilities, therapeutic children’s boarding schools), this form of treatment takes place either individually or in groups and is led by a qualified therapist or a specialized professional facilitator.

Whether walking, brushing, petting or caring for an animal, assisted therapy involves setting specific therapeutic goals and strategies and measuring outcomes. Clients learn to connect physically, emotionally and mentally with their therapy animal while processing the experience of trying to achieve a specific task.

What are the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy?

The bond between clients and accepting, non-judgmental, non-threatening animals can be very strong, making it easier for people to open up to animals and, consequently, other humans. Some of the benefits of animal assisted therapy include:

  • Improved fine motor skills
  • Improved balance
  • Increased focus and attention
  • Increased self-esteem and ability to care for oneself
  • Reduced anxiety, grief and isolation
  • Reduced blood pressure, depression, and risk of heart attack or stroke
  • Improved willingness to be involved in a therapeutic program or group activity
  • Increased trust, empathy and teamwork
  • Greater self-control
  • Enhanced problem-solving skills
  • Reduced need for medication
  • Improved social skills

Because many people enjoy working with animals, this type of therapy can be particularly beneficial for those individuals who are resistant to treatment, have a hard time opening up in talk therapy or who may be shut down emotionally.

What conditions or disorders does Animal Assisted Therapy treat?

People with a variety of conditions can benefit from animal assisted therapy including:

  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Addiction
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Dementia
  • Developmental disorders
  • Psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia
  • Emotional and behavioral disorders
  • Chronic pain
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Blindness
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Cerebral Palsy

Classifications of Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are privately owned and tend to visit therapeutic facilities on a regular basis. A therapy animal is only half of the healing equation, however. A responsible, caring handler is an important member of the therapy animal team. At the end of a visit, therapy animals go home with their owners.

Most commonly, therapy animals are dogs; however, the National Service Animal Registry (NSAR) routinely registers cats, rabbits, llamas, miniature horses and other species that have shown they like people and have the temperament to work with them.

According to the NSAR, there are three important classifications of therapy animals.

  1. The most common types are Therapeutic Visitation animals. These are household pets whose pet parents take the time to visit hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities and detention facilities to comfort and help people who have to be away from home due to physical or mental illness and/or court order. These clients often miss their own pets and a visit from a therapy animal can lift their spirits, motivate them in therapy, and encourage the treatment goals that can get them home to take care of their own pets.
  1. Animal Assisted Therapy pets assist physical and occupational therapists in meeting goals important to a client’s treatment and recovery from emotional, mental and physical disabilities. These animals help achieve those with physical ailments gain motion in limbs, assist in fine motor control, support balance and walking with assistance, and teach client’s how to re-learn everyday activities. AAT animals – with the exception of equines – usually work in rehab facilities.

While canine and equine assisted therapy is the most common, donkeys, with their smaller stature and gentle nature, are sometimes used in programs for children. Dolphin Assisted Therapy is increasing in popularity, particularly in Europe, and works best in short-term therapy for patients with who have neurological disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome, phobias, and depression. Cats function well in nursing homes and assisted living facilities because of their calmer natures and the ability to snuggle in elderly laps where a dog might be too large.

  1. The Facility Therapy Animal primarily works in nursing homes and is trained to help patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other mental illnesses. These clients typically need the company of therapy animals to help comfort them in times of distress and alleviate anxieties. The Facility animal typically lives at the nursing home and is handled by a trained staff member.

Training of Therapy Animals

Therapy animals must be well socialized to many different environments, people and situations, be very even tempered, not shed excessively and have love and empathy with all types of people. They must be able to focus with exceptional self-control and be psychologically sound and mature. The therapy animal must also be physically healthy, although animals with physical disabilities (such as amputees or paraplegics) are not disqualified from training and certification.

Training initially consists of working with the pet parent/handler on basic obedience skills. In general this means sitting when asked, lying down when asked, walking on a loose leash when applicable, leaving something alone when asked, staying in place briefly, taking food nicely, and being very, very neutral when meeting another animal.

As training progresses, the animal learns how to deal with distractions (food, other ‘sniffables’), remain safe around medical equipment, position themselves comfortably and safely around wheelchairs and beds, and interact effectively with people who are ill, disabled, or have behavior disorders.

Therapy animals can be taught a series of other skills to enhance their visits to facilities, including walking along the side of a walker or wheelchair, putting a head in a lap, backing up, turning around, waiting and walking on.

Positive, reward-based training inspires confidence and an upbeat attitude in trained therapy animals. This means that the animal must be happy (not fearful, stressed, or aroused by) being around people who look and act differently than how handlers look and act at home.  Visits can include rough handling, peculiar gaits or movements, angry yelling, crowded petting, use of healthcare equipment, etc. – and these animals have to remain calm, expressive and unaffected.

Certification of Therapy Animals

There are several organizations in this country that certify therapy animals, but probably the largest and best-known is Therapy Dogs International (TDI®).

TDI® tests, regulates and registers therapy animals and their handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions wherever the animals are needed. Animals must be must be at least one year of age and pass a TDI temperament evaluation to be eligible for testing and certification. The test will include the appraisal by a Certified TDI Evaluator of the animal’s behavior around people with the use of some type of service equipment (wheelchairs, crutches, etc.) as well as obedience and specific skills tests. Health record forms need to be continuously updated and signed by the therapy animal’s veterinarian.

Although therapy animals provide a very important therapeutic service to all kinds of people in need, they are NOT considered ‘service animals’ and they and their handlers do not have the protections under federal law (ADA, the Fair Housing Act, Air Carrier Access Act, etc.) shown to certified service animals. Some states, however, have laws that afford therapy animals and their handlers’ certain rights and protections.

Equine Assisted Therapy

Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) encompasses a range of treatment options that includes activities with horses and donkeys to promote emotional, physical and occupational health in persons with various mental, emotional and physical disorders. EAT combines with more commonly used therapies to aid clients with ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, traumatic brain injuries, cerebral palsy, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, drug/alcohol addiction, Down’s syndrome, abuse issues and other physical and mental health problems.

The most common therapies using equines are:

  • Therapeutic horseback riding usually including a certified therapeutic riding instructor, one or more volunteers, and a horse, to help an individual ride a horse and work with it on the ground.
  • Hippotherapy typically involves a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist using the different movements of the horse to promote correct and changing postural responses of the physically disabled rider.
  • Equine Assisted Learning promotes the development of life skills through learning about the care and management of equines, including grooming, leading, health issues, and other equine-assisted activities.
  • Equine Assisted Psychotherapy allows mental health professionals to work with one or more clients in an experiential manner to help the clients learn about themselves and others while processing feelings and behaviors. By interacting on the ground with horses, many clients (particularly those with abuse or PTSD issues) are able to relate to the animals in unique ways so that they experience a release of emotions and anxieties that they might not get in regular talk therapy.
  • Therapeutic Carriage Driving involves controlling a horse that pulls a carriage modified to accommodate a wheelchair.

Therapy horses are typically older, retired riding horses well schooled in handling new and inexperienced riders. Calm, unexcitable and willing, therapy horses must be able to handle unbalanced riders, several volunteers walking on either side, and disabled riders mounting from different heights. They typically live on site at the therapeutic riding facility and may travel out for assisted trail rides and horse shows.

Therapeutic riding facilities and instructors are certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH). Instructors and facilities are routinely tested and inspected for knowledge, safety and correct horsemanship to ensure clients, barns, riding arenas, tack and animals are maintained and well-treated.  


Cate Burnette is a semi-retired registered veterinary technician with clinical experience in small and large animal medicine. With 30-plus years of journalism experience, she went back to school after 9/11 to work with her first love: animals. The pet parent of four cats, three dogs and one ex-racehorse, Cate is a certified rescue volunteer with the American Humane Association’s Red Star Emergency Services and served with the group in New Orleans doing animal search and rescue after Hurricane Katrina. She is also a horse safety and horse management expert, and has volunteered with US Pony Clubs as a district commissioner and horse management judge.

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