Horses and Dolphins and Dogs, Oh My!
Animal-Assisted Therapy Provides a Unique Support and Inspiration to Kids with Disabilities
Kids and animals are natural companions. For children with disabilities, that companionship can also include invaluable physical and emotional therapy. Whether it’s strengthening muscles through horseback riding, feeling motivated to improve while swimming with dolphins or gaining confidence with the help and companionship of a service dog, kids with disabilities can benefit from many different kinds of animals.
Animals offer all children the chance to connect to another living being, says Adrian Sandler, M.D., head of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Children with Disabilities. But for kids with disabilities, animals can also provide invaluable therapy, he says. Riding a horse, for example, can help a child physically strengthen his or her muscles while also serving as recreation that builds self-esteem.
"Mastering something new is great for children with disabilities," Sandler says.
"A variety of programs nationwide use animals to assist children with chronic illness and disabilities," notes Maryellen Elcock, Ph.D., director of animal-assisted therapy services for the Delta Society, a national nonprofit organization that works to improve human health through service and therapy animals. Delta’s Pet Partners program alone involves more than 6,000 individuals and organizations that connect people with chronic illness or disabilities to therapy animals.
Although there are no comprehensive national statistics, there’s no doubt that the number of programs that use animals to work with children with disabilities is growing. And some of these programs are producing interesting and promising results, Sandler says. But he emphasizes that the biggest benefit is the relationship children develop with the animals. They become comfortable with them, and they learn the responsibility of caring for another living being.
Service dogs are perhaps the animals most associated with helping disabled people, but horses and dolphins are also used to help children in a multitude of ways. All three animals provide physical therapy benefits, as well as motivation and confidence for the kids involved.
"In terms of therapy associated with different disabilities," Elcock says, "the presence of an animal may make sessions more pleasurable and productive and, therefore, improve therapeutic outcomes."
Riding for Well-Being
Riding horses specifically for therapeutic purposes has helped kids with diverse disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, eating disorders and substance abuse, according to the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), a non-profit organization that promotes the use of horses to benefit people with physical, emotional and learning disabilities. Riding can improve muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, motor development and emotional well-being, according to NARHA.
Different kinds of horses are used for different purposes: Miniature horses can be brought right into hospitals and schools, while draft horses can pull wagons full of kids. Each riding center – NARHA represents 650 in the United States and Canada, but there are many more – designs its programs specifically for the clients it wants to serve.
Equine Angels serves its clients through a particular combination of yoga and hippotherapy, which is when a therapist uses the horse’s movement to address impairments, functional limitations and disabilities in patients with neuromusculoskeletal dysfunction. Many of the children Equine Angels serves have poor posture, Gray says. They may be tilted to one side and their muscles may be shortened. Many can’t walk on their own and are nonverbal. Putting children who are bent, unbalanced and malformed on a horse stretches and tones their muscles, Gray says. The rocking motion of the horse mimics the pelvic motion of walking.
Hippotherapy helps these children advance in a variety of ways. Their muscle tone may improve to the point where they may learn to walk with a walker. Nonverbal children may feel empowered learning to say "Whoa" and "Go" to direct a horse.
Early on, Gray became excited about the idea of easing social interactions for children with disabilities. There’s a difference in public perception between a child who sits hunched over in a wheelchair, eyes cast to the ground, and a child who can sit a bit more squarely and use more direct eye contact, she says.
"This can set the tone for how they’re going to be received and perceived for their whole life," Gray says.
Physical therapists worked with Gray’s son Spencer, trying to get him to use a walker when he was younger, but his brain simply couldn’t comprehend how his legs were supposed to work. Instead, he would hop in the walker. After three rides on a horse, however, Spencer’s brain seemed to translate the movement of the horse to his own body, and he began putting one leg in front of the other.
Progress comes through a child’s hard physical work – though children don’t always realize how hard they’re working because they’re having so much fun. But the relationship between human and animal is an equally important element of the therapy.
"There is power in that relationship," says Michael Kaufmann, director of education for the NARHA. He’s also quick to point out that the relationship is full of conditions. If a child screams at a horse, he’ll quickly learn that the horse won’t let him near. The horse’s behavior can reinforce positive behavior.
Despite the benefits and successes, these programs still face challenges. Eighty percent of people who work with disabled children and horses are volunteers, Kauffman says.
For financial reasons, Gray had to let her one paid employee go and now depends on volunteers. But volunteers often only want to donate an hour or two, and Gray says she needs more than that. Yet Gray, Kauffman and other advocates remain undeterred.
"There is limited access to recreational exercise for these children," Gray notes. And Kauffman adds that riding a horse gives children an important sense of independence that they might not have in their wheelchairs.
Dolphins as Motivation
Instead of in a corral with horses, some kids with disabilities make their progress in a lagoon with dolphins. Dolphin Human Therapy is a Miami, Fla.-based company that provides a full-time, individualized dolphin-assisted rehabilitation program for special needs children and adults from all over the country.
Swimming with dolphins is so much fun that this company uses it to motivate disabled kids to work on a variety of skills. For every task a child masters, he or she gets to pet, stroke or swim with one of five dolphins and a therapist in an enclosed lagoon.
Swimming with dolphins feels magical by anyone’s account. For children, it goes beyond their wildest imagination. But David Nathanson, Ph.D., president of Dolphin Human Therapy, is adamant that this program not be misconstrued. It is not magic, he says. Autistic children don’t suddenly become verbal and part of the outer world, for instance. But dolphin therapy does have very positive effects on the children who participate.
Kitty Rodrigues has seen the results with her 12-year-old son, Alex, who has cerebral palsy. When Alex was much younger, Rodrigues was told not to have a lot of hope – that Alex wouldn’t walk, that he would be in a vegetative state. He has been attending Dolphin Human Therapy yearly since he was 3 years old.
"Therapists are amazed to see the progress he’s made considering how damaged he is," she says. "It’s absolutely amazing."
The company’s Dolphin Human Behavior program is based on the premise of behavior modification. For two weeks, children work with speech therapists, physical therapists and occupational therapists. During each 40-minute session, children are in and out of the water constantly with their therapist.
The program strives to increase the children’s attention span in order to help them "catch up" to children without disabilities. "This is the ultimate attention-holding environment," Nathanson says.
The environment is deeply pleasurable – surrounded by beautiful vistas, warm breezes and warm water – and the dolphins themselves are inviting and relaxing to touch and look at. "Their movements and sounds are poetic," Nathanson says.
Rodrigues sees it a little differently. "The therapists here understand these children. They understand my son," she says. She has seen such positive changes and developments in Alex that she plans to move her family to Miami to try the program on a weekly basis.
The program has served children from 39 states and 54 countries. Human Dolphin Therapy’s own research shows 50 percent of the children maintain or improve their skills after being in the program, although it’s important to return yearly if possible. Nathanson sees three factors as important to the program’s success: the skill and experience of the staff; the parents’ motivation and dedication to follow-up; and the dolphins, who are the key motivators.
Dogs for Companionship and Service
While dolphins and horses have important physical and emotional benefits, they cannot live with a child. Dogs can.
Dogs specially trained to work with the disabled offer many different services. They can guide people who are visually impaired, alert people who are hearing impaired to specific sounds, get help when a person has a seizure, as well as retrieve dropped items, open doors, and assist the person with balance.
"Dogs also provide companionship that is critical to the development of children with disabilities," says Elcock.
Canine Assistants is a Georgia-based organization that trains dogs – primarily labradors and golden retrievers – to help children and adults across the country with physical disabilities resulting from muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, automobile accidents and other causes. The dogs are provided free of charge to qualified recipients all over the country.
These dogs can do some remarkable tasks for their disabled handlers. They can turn lights on with their noses and off with their teeth, and even open doors that have been appropriately adapted. Once they go home with a participant, they can build on the skills they have learned and accomplish even more specific tasks – even helping with the laundry or making a bed, says Kellie Mann, programs coordinator for Canine Assistants.
In several instances, Canine Assistants’ service dogs have used their training on flipping a light switch to flip a ventilator switch back on, thus saving their human companion’s life.
The dogs enable children to gain independence and confidence by being with them all the time. Mann cites several examples:
• A child with a seizure disorder who never went out in public alone started to go out because she wasn’t "alone" anymore.
• A child who walked with braces gained increased confidence to do things on her own when she had both the dog and the braces to help stabilize her.
These dogs also offer children and parents more freedom from each other. Elcock cites a 1996 study that revealed "the presence of a dog results in a significantly reduced number of hours of paid and family-provided assistance needed for the activities of daily living."
But a service dog isn’t the solution for everyone, Elcock cautions. "Before considering a service dog for their child, parents should consider the nature of their child’s disability, the child’s personality and the added responsibility of having a service animal in the family."
The Delta Society has developed professional standards for dog trainers (see Resources), and recommends that parents do their homework on any service-dog trainer’s qualifications.
Thanks to successful fund-raising efforts, Canine Assistants gives away between 60 and 70 dogs each year during five two-week training camps. Mann says people often cry when they inquire about the dogs and discover they are free. The actual cost per dog is almost $19,000, including training, board, feeding, veterinary care and the cost of bringing the recipient to Georgia. Canine Assistants, like many service-dog training organizations, currently has a waiting list of clients.
Many children will have disabilities for the rest of their lives, but working with animals can give them the motivation, physical therapy, comfort, companionship and confidence that often leads to real progress in their abilities.
"Kids can do a lot more than we think they can," Nathanson says.
Experts urge parents to be educated consumers, carefully researching any therapy for their children involving animals. Here are two places to start your research:
• Delta Society –, www.deltasociety.org – The Web site provides dozens of resources on therapy and service animals, a find-a-service-animal-trainer function, and the Delta-developed Standards of Practice in Animal-Assisted Activities and Animal-Assisted Therapy. Delta also runs the National Service Dog Center and administers the Pet Partners program.
• North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) – http://NARHA.org – The Web site features articles, information and a find-a-center function.
• Canine Assistants, 3160 Francis Road, Alpharetta, GA 30004; www.canineassistants.org.
• Dolphin Human Therapy Inc. – 13615 South Dixie Hwy. #523, Miami, FL 33176-7252; www.dolphinhumantherapy.com. The program is open from March through December.
• Equine Angels Therapeutic Riding Center – Copper Canyon, TX, 76226; 940-455-2062.
From United Parenting Publications, March 2003