Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI)

Most pet owners will agree that animals have a positive influence on our wellbeing. Our pets are always available. They listen to us without judging and don’t ask questions. When our life turns to chaos, they offer regularity. The animal has to eat, sleep and go for a walk at regular times.

More and more, the favourable effects that animals have on human wellbeing are also proven in scientific studies. Less than ten per cent of human communication is verbal. We communicate mainly by body language. Because animals are experts in non-verbal communication, they capture our emotional states. This creates a bond.

An important study of Baun and colleagues1 shows that simply petting dogs leads to stress reduction and reduces our blood pressure. Animals also have an influence on our self-esteem. Contact with animals is for example associated with better self-esteem and increased coping ability2. Animals give us support and promote interactions with other people. They represent a neutral, external subject to start a conversation. Painful thoughts and feelings are often unconsciously projected on an animal, which makes them discussable3. Animals also motivate us to live more actively and contribute to cardiovascular fitness4.

Because of these (and a lot more) beneficial effects of animals on our wellbeing, they are increasingly used in health care. Sessions involving an animal are called Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI). This term encloses Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA)and Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT). In Animal-Assisted Activities animals are used to improve the general wellbeing of people. There are no specific treatment goals. The aim is to enhance quality of life. The emphasis is on entertainment and distraction. An example of AAA is visiting elderly or ill people who can hug the animal or take care of it. Going for a walk or playing a game with a dog are also AAA. In Animal-Assisted Therapy, the animal is an integral part of a treatment process that can have a cognitive, social, emotional and/or physical nature. AAT is delivered by a professional and it’s goal directed. Examples of AAT are: stimulating a rehabilitation patient while doing exercises, enhancing self-esteem of a client or improving an adolescents’ sense of responsibility.

There is only a fine line between AAA and AAT because activities can also have a therapeutic effect. As a psychologist, my services are mainly therapeutically. However, I want my sessions to be pleasant and satisfying for the person and the dog so entertainment and distraction also play a role.

1Baun MM, Bergstrom N, Langston N, Thoma L. Physiological effects of human/companion animal bonding. Nurs Res 1984; 33: 126-9
2Berget B, Ekeberg O, Braastad BO. Animal-assisted therapy with farm animals for persons with psychiatric disorders: effects on self-efficacy, coping ability and quality of life, a randomized controlled trial. Clin Pract Epidem Ment Health 2008; 4: 1-7.
3Mason, M.S., & Hagan, C.B. (1999). Pet-assisted psychotherapy. Psychological Reports, 84, 1235-1245
4Kushner, R.F., Blatner, D.J., Jewell, D.E., & Rudloff, K. (2006). The PPET Study: people and pets exercising together. Obesity (Silver Spring), 14(10), 1762-1770.

Recommended literature

The following books inspired me.
“Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy. Theoretical foundations and guidelines for pratice” by Aubrey H. Fine
“Dog Sense: How the new science of dog behavior can make you a better friend to your pet” by John Bradshaw.
“Emoties bij honden. De basis van de band tussen mens en dier” by Paul de Vos.
“Slaaf van mijn gedachten. De behandeling van een dwangpatiënte” by Marte Van Santen.
“Dog Medicine: How my dog saved me from myself” by Julie Barton.