Pet Therapy vs Animal-Assisted Therapy

“Is that a therapy dog?” The good news–more and more, we (society) are better understanding the human/animal bond, and using it to make progress or make things accessible. The bad news–there is more confusion than ever as far as what is a therapy pet, animal-assisted therapy, a service pet, and so on.

Before having kids, animals (dogs specifically) were my first love. My now-deceased dog Mell-O-D and I spent a number of years doing pet therapy, first at the PICU at CHOP, and then we joined a fantastic group called PAWS for People and did animal-assisted therapy with them.

A child may resist reading with an adult, but enjoy reading to a dog.

Animal therapy has really evolved over the past decade or so and I thought I’d share some of the options that parents have.

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What is Pet Therapy?

Basic pet therapy is the discipline that most people think of when you mention, well, pet therapy. It involves a trained animal and not just dogs.

Ragdoll Cats, rabbits, and many other types of pets are now being used. And a handler of course. Depending on the certification they have and the organization they work with, what they have been trained to do will vary.

These are just basically therapeutic visits. The handler takes the pet to the facility, and either in a large group or 1:1 setting, the participants get to visit with the animal and the handler.

This can be a great option for some households, particularly if you are not equipped in your household to own a pet or you have another family member with allergies. Nemours Children’s Hospital has them in the lab area quite often to console kids who have blood drawn.

Many teachers do informal pet therapy in their classrooms just by having a classroom pet present. There are many great classroom pet ideas and options for teachers.

A Hermit Crab is a great idea for a classroom pet!
Believe it or not, holding a hermit crab can reduce your stress and blood pressure.

Effectiveness of Animal Therapy

Is Pet Therapy Effective? Yes, several studies have demonstrated that spending time with animals has numerous advantages for children with special needs or disabilities. “Children benefited from animal therapy in a variety of ways, including decreased anxiety and stress, improved mood, increased social skills, and increased motivation to make progress on specific tasks,” stated Nicolas Mottet from

Interestingly, the benefits of Pet Therapy were also measured beyond children: parents and therapists themselves also reported a higher level of satisfaction when children received Pet Therapy. (sources below)

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

This is the next step up from pet therapy. This area of animal therapy has shown a tremendous amount of growth and potential in recent years. It involves using the animal as a catalyst to elicit desired behavior from the participant.

This can mean either using the animal as a reward when the child does the desired behavior (or eliminates undesirable behavior) or using the pet as your equipment.

Let me give you some examples. Many children with autism have difficulties accepting the task of getting their hair brushed. Working with an OT, they can work on brushing a cat, dog, or horse, to sort of condition them to accept the same sensation on themselves.

And, say, the child particularly enjoys feeding treats to the animal. Then they get to give a treat to the pet each time they accept a brush across their hair three times. Brush three times, and give the dog a treat. Repeat.

For animal-assisted therapy, usually, a trained therapist of some type is present.

Of course, it’s not realistic to think that every OT, PT, SLP, and behavior counselor will have a trained therapy dog in their household, so usually the handler and animal come in as a third party.

Hippotherapy is a great example of this. Hippotherapy is actually therapy with horses, not hippos.

My son works with a PT. There also is a trained horse and two horse handlers present, one as a leader and one as a spotter.

The horse is used as a motivator and as a way to get my son’s trunk muscles to perform skills he may not otherwise perform in daily activities.

My son Kevin petting the cat.
My son Kevin petting a cat.

Several years ago, my dog and I tried drug and alcohol counseling as animal-assisted therapy. Wait, let me rephrase that!

We went to a drug and alcohol treatment center, and there was a trained counselor and group participants there. Mell-O-D, my dog, just wandered the room during the group therapy session.

The behavior counselor led the session, my dog was just there to relieve stress in the room and remind the participants of what was waiting for them at home. Studies have shown that having a pet decreases stress in many situations.

My only job was to bring the certified therapy dog to the session, I just sat quietly in the corner and kept tabs on my dog.

We also participated in a reading program at the Newark (DE) library. It has been shown that children who have reading difficulties often show progress in programs like these.

While they may be too nervous and self-conscious to read in front of their class, they often have no hangups about reading to a dog.

Another way we used our own therapy dog is with my son’s speech. He is non-verbal but he uses some words occasionally.

We use our dogs as a motivator for him to pronounce some sounds. There also were some fantastic studies going on down at the University of Delaware using dogs to motivate non-mobile children to walk.

What are Service Animals vs Pet Therapy?

This is the most intense and most involved of all the options. This area has also shown tremendous growth and potential in recent years. While many people still think of only seeing-eye dogs, there are more options.

There are now seizure-alert dogs, seeing eye, full companions, group companions, and more. You have to shop around for an organization that suits you. The application and receiving process could take months or more.

While insurance may cover some of the costs, most organizations expect you to participate in fundraising. It can cost $25k or more to train a service dog from start to finish. 

Dr. Jamie Whittenburg, owner of Kingsgate Animal Hospital and veterinary writer for also cautions against for-profit organizing training service dogs: “Make sure you do your research about the organization providing the dog. Talk to a few customers, discuss how effective their dogs are, and understand the long-term training commitment”. 

My favorite local organization for service dogs is Canine Partners for Life in Cochranville.

Where to Find Animal-Assisted Therapy

  • First, think of what you want. If you are looking for a dog for your child to read to, call your local library and see if they do that.
  • Search the internet.
  • Ask your veterinarian or your local pet supply store if they know of groups/agencies.
  • Here are some common therapy animals: Ragdoll Cats, Goldendoodle Dogs, Labrador Retrievers, and Goldendoodle Retrievers. This is one reason people love Labradors!
  • You can train your own. I once helped Paws for People organize a class to teach parents how to use their own pets at home with their own children. I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I asked them to create it. Think outside the box!

Pet Therapy Training

You can do many things at home to start working with your pet with your child at home. Use your pet’s presence to calm your child, or as a distraction before a situation escalates.

If your child resists every evening when it is reading time, try having them read to the dog instead. You might be surprised.

You can also encourage and role model talking to your dog because dogs always listen and never talk back. Cats too!

Hopefully, I’ve given you some good starting points if you’ve been considering adding an animal to your child’s treatment repertoire. PAWS for People can be a great resource if you are choosing the animal-assisted therapy option. Their fees are quite affordable for facilities and they really are the trendsetters in this region for expanding the options.

They now have two live autism programs in the state of Delaware, they were one of the first to go into drug and alcohol treatment centers, they have a fantastic relationship and programs set up with Easter Seals of Delaware, and more.

This post was originally published in 2011 but was recently updated.

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