• Laura Sylvester

What makes Occupational Therapy Fun? ... Animal Assisted Therapy with a Facility Dog!

By Guest blogger: Quiara Smith MOT OTR/L Pediatric Occupational Therapist. Owner and Director of Aloha Integrative Therapy: Pediatric Occupational Therapy Clinic in the SF Bay Area.

Since I was young I have always wanted to help people, especially other children. At my pre-school graduation we had to tell the audience what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said I wanted to be a pediatrician. When I actually learned about all the schooling and training a pediatrician had to go through…, I then decided on another path, that didn’t appear long and arduous, but was equally important and beneficial to children (and a lot more creative on a daily basis i.e. swings, play dough, climbing rock walls, etc.) a pediatric occupational therapist.

I have been practicing as an OT for 10 years in both California and in Hawaii. I have worked in a variety of settings such as hospitals (children+adults), schools, an equine center providing hippotherapy, and various outpatient clinics. My favorite population of clients with whom I had the pleasure of working with were the children on the Autism Spectrum. They required me to think outside of the box of what we learned in OT school, and they made me a better OT and a better person. I wanted to see if I could merge my love of dogs and my love of pediatric OT to be able to provide the best OT interventions for my clients with ASD. Thus, I started on the journey to working with a facility dog in order to provide Animal Assisted Therapy and Animal Assisted Interventions as part of my OT clinical services. The whole process to welcome a facility dog into my OT practice and into my heart, took me 2.5 years from start to finish. I have an amazing working partnership with my canine assistant/fur therapist, Nelly Lani, a smart, beautiful and compassionate, 4 year old Golden Retriever/Labrador cross from Bergin College of Canine Studies.

Since adding Nelly Lani into my OT practice (and into my life), I have noticed that many people ask me the following questions quite frequently:

1. What is a facility dog and how is it different from a service dog? A facility dog is a dog who is regularly present in a residential or clinical setting. The dog might live with a handler who is an employee of the facility and come to work each day, or they might live at the facility full-time under the care of a primary staff person. Facility dogs should be specially trained for extended interactions with clients of the facility and provide Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI) to clients. Facility dogs do not have special rights of access in public unless they are accompanying and directly supporting a client with a disability. A service dog is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Examples include guide dogs for people who are blind, hearing dogs for people who are deaf, or dogs trained to provide mobility assistance or communicate medical alerts. Service dogs are considered working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Guide, hearing, and service dogs are permitted, in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to accompany a person with a disability almost anywhere the general public is allowed. This includes restaurants, businesses, and on airplanes. 2. What is Animal Assisted Therapy? Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a goal-oriented, planned, structured, and documented therapeutic intervention directed by health and human service providers as part of their profession. A wide variety of disciplines may incorporate AAT. Possible practitioners could include physicians, occupational therapists, physical therapists, certified therapeutic recreation specialists, nurses, social workers, speech therapists, or mental health professionals. (Pet Partners, 2019) 3. What is Animal Assisted Interventions? Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) are goal-oriented and structured interventions that intentionally incorporate animals in health, education, and human service for the purpose of therapeutic gains and improved health and wellness. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), animal-assisted education (AAE), and animal-assisted activities (AAA) are all forms of animal-assisted interventions. In all these interventions, the animal may be part of a volunteer therapy animal team working under the direction of a professional or an animal that belongs to the professional. (Pet Partners 2019) 4. Does animal assisted therapy/ animal assisted interventions really help the kids you see who have ASD or other kids you see who need OT services in general? YES, absolutely!!!!! The children I see for OT services are motivated to participate in OT activities because Nelly is there to “play” with them. Most of my clients will participate in OT treatment activities more willingly when they know they are “helping or playing” with Nelly. The clients are actively participating in OT therapeutic interventions and making progress with their OT therapeutic goals, in a new and fun way, that they maybe haven’t been exposed to in traditional OT settings (i.e school, clinic, or home environments). I also have to mention that not only do the children benefit from participating in AAT/AAI, but so does the whole family, especially the parents of the children I see. Often times, I see parents who arrive stressed or fatigued, and after Nelly greets them and gives them some love and snuggles, they instantly improve their mood, which is fantastic for the OT session their child is about to participate in. Parents become more receptive of what is being taught during the treatment session and everyone appears more grounded.

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