Across the board, in relation to both physical and intellectual disability, animal therapy has proved a positive and successful method of treatment. Animals provide an alternative focus, taking people’s attention off their disablement and into a mood of fascination, joy and fun. In this frame of mind, there is greater opportunity for the reception of learning and application of increased effort into achieving goals.

Animals bring about new perspectives of possibility, positivity and wellbeing. They prove themselves, loyal, entertaining, helpful, intuitive, empathetic, and capable of pure unconditional love, free of judgement and expectation.

The growing popularity of animal therapy

  • Those children who experience difficulty with reading find that reading to dogs can be extremely effective. Children feel more confident and do not fear interruption or criticism from the dogs, and therefore complete their tasks with more enthusiasm.
  • Animal therapy builds on a concept called the human-animal bond. For many people, by interacting with a friendly animal, they can form a bond with them, producing a calmer state and assisting the individual to interact with others in a more relaxed manner.
  • Therapy animals can attract other people, increasing the social interaction of the intellectually disabled child. Dogs can interact with a range of people, bringing in a sense of friendliness and camaraderie, facilitating social and personal development.
  • Children with disabilities often feel they are perceived as “different” in a negative way, which can stunt their ability to relate to others. However, these feelings can be reduced by the presence of a therapy animal. Along with acting as a best friend, the therapy animal helps the child make more friends.
  • Animal Assisted Therapy (ATT) by definition must be delivered by a professional such as a psychologist or a teacher. This is to make sure that the therapy remains goal directed with achievable objectives and results that can be measured and evaluated.

Autism and Animal Therapy
The person first credited with using dogs as a method of therapy, Brian Levinson, observed how the presence of a dog helped to strengthen an autistic child’s connection with their environment. Levinson was a child psychologist who found that when he brought his dog along to sessions with his patients, they were much more responsive and made efforts to initiate conversations.

Animal therapy has a number of useful benefits for children on the autism spectrum in any capacity. One of the main benefits of animal therapy is the animal’s ability to act as a buffer between children and other people. This can give children with autism valuable space so they can be more relaxed in social situations. Children with autism who have dogs as pets are also often able to form strong social bonds with the animals, an aspect which can help when it comes to socialising with peers and adults.

Therapy animals can also provide assistance to children with autism-induced anxiety. They are often trained in deep pressure touch stimulation, which involves using their body weight to regulate anxiety or other negative emotions. This includes pawing or nose-nudging to interrupt repetitive behaviours, obstacle avoidance, and the finding and fetching of a parent or cell phone during anxiety attacks.

ADHD and Animal Therapy
Therapy animals can be used for interventions primarily aimed at improving children’s memory capabilities through play and increased understanding of how important it is to take responsibility for the wellbeing of an animal. Taking responsibility gives children greater confidence and can therefore lead to better achievements academically and improved problem-solving capability.

Regularly walking and playing with a dog reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and at the same time increases oxytocin. This can help children with ADHD who may often experience high levels of stress and anxiety – negative emotions which only exacerbate their difficulties in a classroom environment.

The many benefits of working with a therapy animal

  • Lowers anxiety, slows breathing and promotes relaxation
  • Provides an escape or happy distraction
  • Reduces boredom
  • Improves mood and reduces depression
  • Increases self-confidence and builds empathy
  • Increases social interactions
  • Helps children set boundaries and respect personal space
  • Demonstrates how to take responsibility for one’s actions
  • Improves levels of interest, focus, and motivation
  • Increases movement and activity through walks and play
  • Provides a sense of companionship and reduces loneliness
  • Improves mood and general well-being by introducing an overall more balanced mental and emotional state
  • Promotes the use of language, even in children with autism.

The story of Sunfield Home

Twenty years ago, Chris and Lynne Bennett, parents of a young girl with Down Syndrome, pursued their dream of establishing a home for their daughter and other intellectually disabled young adults in the Western Cape. Together with other parents, they founded the Sunfield Home in Wellington, providing a loving and nurturing environment for over 100 residents and day-care adult individuals.

Each individual is screened to evaluate their strengths and allocate activities according to their abilities. A protective workshop has been established where contract work is undertaken, as well as arts and crafts activities. An employment scheme has also been developed and as a result permanent and successful positions have been found within the surrounding wine and cheese industries.

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