Incorporating animals into occupational therapy settings

DOGWOOD THERAPYIt’s well documented that animal assisted interventions result in statistically significant health benefits.

That’s one reason why animal assisted therapy is increasingly popular with occupational therapists. Research by Mona Sams, Elizabeth Fortney, and Stan Willenbring, for example, documented that children with autism demonstrated significantly greater language use and social interaction in occupational therapy (OT) sessions that incorporated animals when compared to sessions using standard OT techniques without animals.

Occupational therapists incorporate animals into therapy with clients of all ages – from children to adults. They are often used to develop strength and endurance, enhance social interactions among those with disabilities, and improve range of motion. Animals, especially dogs, are used in stretching classes, to develop fine motor skills, and to help clients learn the sequences of steps involved in completing a task.

OT animals in action

At Ontario ARC in Canandaigua, N.Y., for example, the Pet Connections Program helps individuals with developmental disabilities learn how to interact with animals and acquire new skills related to caring for them. Working with an occupational therapist and a dog, program participants learn how to recognize animal behaviors – including signs that they are stressed – along with calming techniques.  Some of what they learn through the animal assisted intervention activities can help them find a job, too.

Melissa Winkle, owner of Dogwood Therapy in Albuquerque, N.M. and a member of the Oakland University Center for Human Animal Interventions advisory committee, incorporates animals into her practice so that participants can improve physical, cognitive, and psychiatric performance.

Working with the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society, Lisa Markin and her dog Rowan work together to help patients improve hand-eye coordination and balance by playing ball hockey with them because the game uses gross motor skills. Markin’s clients also learn Rowan’s retrieve commands, which helps improve cognitive and memory function.

At 7 Senses Therapy in Melbourne, Fla., licensed occupational therapists Alex and Lauren Flores and therapy dog Tinder help children practice scissor skills by cutting treats for him, develop fine motor skills by manipulating his leash and collar, and developing bilateral coordination by bringing him food and water.

Thinking about introducing animals to your practice?

It’s important to remember that not everyone is comfortable with animals, so take that into account as you begin exploring how you might work with animals in a therapeutic setting.

In addition, it’s essential that you know your pet very well before incorporating it into your practice. You will also want to investigate insurance and legal requirements to make sure you’re following all regulations.

Many occupational therapists interested in being trained in animal assisted therapy enroll in Oakland University’s online Animal Assisted Therapy Certificate program. For more information, visit the school’s animal assisted therapy website.

Incorporating animals into OT programs can lead to an incredibly rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Have you incorporated an animal into your occupational therapy practice or have you seen others do so? Tell us how in a comment.


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