When a child struggles with attachment, relational, or trust issues, animal assisted therapy — sometimes called pet therapy — may help the child overcome those challenges. Most children naturally feel safe and comfortable with animals, and in turn, the animals show unconditional positive regard for the children. The use of animals helps facilitate rapport with the therapist and makes the counseling process more enjoyable for the child.
An animal like one of our certified therapy dogs is typically seen by the child as nonjudgemental and nonthreatening. The child may feel that the animal is more accepting and understanding than a human. Allowing children who feel anxious and stressed to divulge personal information to the animal, instead of directly to the therapist, can alleviate anxiety and speed up the recovery process. “When children are in a safe and comfortable situation, they talk more,” said Mount Saint Vincent’s Treatment Leader Misty White, LPC. “And when they talk more, they can process more.”
Animals can also help children calm their behavior. Animals intuitively sense when a child is agitated or disregulated and they will avoid that child. Children quickly learn that they need to calm their bodies, slow down their breathing, and lower their voices before they can interact with the animal.
According to Pet Partners, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote positive human-animal interaction to improve people’s physical, emotional and psychological lives, animal-assisted therapy is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process.
At Mount Saint Vincent’s Denver-based treatment facility, we integrate pet therapy into the child behavior treatment process, making therapy fun and effective. The therapy animals include dogs, horses, guinea pigs, and even fish in the classrooms.
A robust equine therapy program is conducted in partnership with Aspen Hollow Young Ranchers, Inc. Aspen Hollow serves at-risk youth, providing meaningful experiences that help the children develop sustainable life skills through building dynamic, authentic relationships with a horse, other animals, and the community in a professionally supported, safe, and natural environment.
For questions regarding Mount Saint Vincent’s animal-assisted therapy program for children, call Supervising Lead Clinician Jessica Pfeiffer at 303-458-7220.