What is AAT?

What is Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) involves animals in: the treatment of health issues; the facilitation of learning; as well as the improvement of social functioning. An AAT therapist incorporates AAT into their professional practice and facilitates change in a client by exposing them to constructive interactions with an animal.

As the term implies, “Animal Assisted Therapy” is where an animal is included in the treatment of a client with predefined therapeutic goal.

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is defined as a therapy because of the results that history and research have shown us. There are many research programs, showing that where animals are included in the treatment of a client, the rate of recovery is quicker. AAT is now a recognized treatment where an animal is used as a ‘tool’ by professional health, educational and social providers as well as lay people.

AAT is a goal-driven intervention program in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT programs can provide specific outcomes when it is applied and directed by a health service professional with specialized expertise such as psychology, counseling, psychotherapy, social work, education, nursing, physiotherapy, speech-language pathology, etc.

Why use AAT?

AAT is now used as a means of improving the quality of life by, helping guide, pick up objects, alert to seizures, seeing eye dog, phones ringing, ‘listening’, encouraging rehabilitation and healing, enhancing and promoting socialization. Some research and studies of AAT programs have shown that animal interaction and ownership brings significant health and behavioral benefits.

Some evidence and overwhelming feedback from users of AAT programs validate that animals do and have made, great differences to those who utilize their services.

AAT is known to provide a range of benefits to people with traumas, mental health, illnesses that disable a person due to injury or disease and those who are born with certain impediments.

Assistance animals’ known to assist with reducing an individual’s requirement for attendant care and promote confidence and wellbeing in the owner.

Guide dogs for the blind have been used successfully for over seventy years; however, using AAT assistance dogs for range of disorders that affect social and other cognitive abilities is amore recent concept.

Studies in AAT and associated activities also show successful therapy and behavioral results. For example:

Animals are known to provide stress relief, help in psychology aid, depression and short-term memory. The patient also receives psychosocial benefits such as building affinity, bond, increasing self-esteem and motivation and reduction of stress.

Having an animal visit a client in a hospital or rehabilitation center can provide a welcome distraction from pain and infirmity; provide happiness, a subject of communication for clients by sharing their problems, feelings and memories with an animal, also allowing a topic of discussion after the visit has concluded.

  • Autism assistance dogs provide a channel for social interaction. Assistance Dogs for children suffering from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) providing “unbelievable” changes in the life of a client and reduces the burden on the caring family.
  • Assistance Dogs trained to improve safety and security for Epileptic patients, by providing early warning of oncoming seizure.
  • Assistance Dogs specially trained to cater and support the primary need of an Alzheimer’s Dementia sufferer.

What animals are used in AAT?

Dogs, horses, guinea pigs, cats, ferrets, birds etc. as well as Farm, Zoo and Native animals.

Defining AAT animals and the jobs they do:

Currently in Australia and around the world, many organisations and individuals are creating new descriptions and new words to define what jobs animals do AAT, (Animal Assisted Therapy). With research ANDAAT has listed below some of the basic definitions.
For example:

·      What is a Visitation Animal?

·      What is a Therapy Animal?

·      What is a Service Animal?

·      What is an Assistance Animal?


(The following definitions were taken Feb 2014 from Wikipedia.com)

1.     “Therapy dogs are usually not service or assistance dogsbut can be if designated as such for people with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress). Service dogs perform tasks for persons with disabilities and have a legal right to accompany their owners in most areas. In the United States, service dogs are legally protected at the federal level by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Therapy dogs are not trained to assist specific individuals and do not qualify as service dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act.Institutions may invite, limit, or prohibit access by therapy dogs. If allowed, many institutions have rigorous requirements for therapy dogs.

Many organizations provide evaluation and registration for therapy dogs. In the United States, some organizations require that a dog pass the equivalent of the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizentest and then add further requirements specific to the environments in which the dogs will be working. Other organizations have their own testing requirements. Typical tests might ensure that a dog can handle sudden loud or strange noises; can walk on assorted unfamiliar surfaces comfortably; are not frightened by people with canes, wheelchairs, or unusual styles of walking or moving; get along well with children and with the elderly; and so on.

In the UK Pets As Therapy(PAT) provides visiting dogs and cats to establishments where pets are otherwise not available.”


2.     Philip Arkow: states, “While the term "pet therapy", is still used in an informal, generic sense, the official terminology of AAT and AAA, and the distinctions between them, should be utilized by all professionals in the field”. (AAA = Animal Assisted Activities)

What is a Visitation Animal?

These are dogs/animals that give comfort, affection and ‘teach’ when visiting schools, hospitals and aged care facilities. The relevant bodies that organize these visitations should have assessment criteria in place for these Dogs/Animals, as to deem them suitable for this work.

“AAT does not involve just any pet interacting with a patient. Standards for the training of the volunteers and their animals are crucial in order to promote a safe, positive experience for the patient. Trained volunteers will understand how to work with other medical professionals to set goals for the patient and keep records of progress. Animals that have been appropriately trained are well socialized to people, other animals, and medical equipment. They are not distracted by the food and odors that may be present in the therapy environment and will not chew inappropriate objects or mark territory.”

Some form of liability insurance should cover animals participating in AAT.


What is a Therapy Animal?

This generally describes an animal and its handler who work as a team along side the treating Professional therapist e.g. Physiotherapist, Psychologist or Teacher. Some treating professionals also own their dog/animal.  ANDAAT recommends that the handler and animal should be able to co-ordinate with the treating professional as to the specific goal that the Therapist is aiming to achieve.

·What is a Service Animal?

“A Service animal means any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability. Examples of work or tasks include, but are not limited to, assisting individuals who are blind or have low vision with navigation and other tasks, alerting individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing to the presence of people or sounds, providing non-violent protection or rescue work, assisting an individual during a seizure, alerting individuals to the presence of allergens, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to individuals with mobility disabilities, and helping persons with psychiatric and neurological disabilities by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors. The crime deterrent effects of an animal´s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.”

What is an Assistance Animal?

This are animals trained to help people find objects, pick things up, open doors, press buttons e.g. at pedestrian crossings and can be also generally called a mobility dog/animal.

“Assistance dogsassist people with disability by helping them to achieve a greater level of independence. Assistance dogs can be trained to perform specific tasks such as opening and closing doors, turning light switches on and off, pressing pedestrian crossing buttons, retrieving and picking up items from the floor.  Assistance dogs can also assist with reducing an individual’s requirement for attendant care and promoting confidence and wellbeing in the owner. Labradors and Golden Retrievers are commonly trained to become assistance dogs” (Assistance Dogs Australia 2008). 

NOTE - Handlers of any animal working in AAT should be very experienced with their knowledge of the animal and within their own ability to handle the animal.

When seeking out people to aid and assist you it is important to request information from the treating professional, i.e.: what qualifications they have, proof of experience, knowledge of the tasks the treating professional is trying to achieve, expected outcomes, references etc.

In Australia today (March 2014) there are no Federal qualifications for individuals in the area of AAT.