All Creatures Great and Small 

Animals have been part of our lives since the beginning of time. Now their role in the treatment of trauma and depression, as well as therapy for people with disabilities, is growing.

Known as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), the use of animals for therapeutic purposes began in 1919 when Franklin Lane suggested using dogs with psychiatricpatients. Since then animals have been helping patients with various illnesses and conditions.

HS Bossard first described the positive effects of animals on the mental health of patients but Boris Levinson is considered the father of AAT as he coined the phrases "Pet Therapy" and "pet-oriented child psychotherapy."

AAT  "promotes positive human-animal interaction and incorporates the talents and traits of a therapy animal into a therapeutic setting to facilitate the recovery of a patient seeking physical or mental health services."

Animals used in AAT range from the most common, dogs and horses, tocats, birds, monkeys, elephants, dolphins, rabbits and other animals, evenlizards! Dogs and horses are most common because of their accessibility andtemperament.

Therapy Dogs

Lesley de Klerk is the founder of Paws for People(1998) South Africa's first fully insured and registered Therapy Dog Unit. She explains that there is a difference between AAT and animal activity. "Animal activity is a visit programme where the dogs work with people, or they are together with people, in a feel good situation. AAT is when the therapy is being done with a goal related outcome, together with an OT, or a relatedprofessional."

AAT is well known overseas and its benefits welldocumented but in South Africa it is only now gaining momentum. "Although we have been active in AAT in this country for 15 years, it is only now beginning to be acknowledged as a treatment with multiple benefits."

She says the reason why dogs are commonly used forAAT is because they are huge motivators. "They also are non-judgmental. Unlikeus, they are not visual judgers, but see what lies inside a person. Dogs don't care what you look like. As such, dogs are useful across the board from treating depression, the aged, children, people with disabilities and conditions such as old timers."

Therapy dogs come in all shapes and sizes, and can beany breed as long as they have a good temperament. These trained dogs are gentle, patient and at ease in any situation. Children generally like to hug the dogs while adults pet the dogs. This is not just a feel good exercise. A wheelchair user will be tasked with positioning their wheelchair closer to thedog to pat it; thereby, without knowing it, improving their manoeuvring skills.

Research in the US has confirmed the positive effects of AAT scientifically. "Petting a dog can reduce the stress hormone, cortisol," says de Klerk. Paws for People do facility visits, not one-on-one visits. DeKlerk's branch visit their ten facilities twice a month and the organisation is manned by volunteers across the country.

Therapy Horses

Animals can become an extension of a person's body allowing a person with a disability to perform acts indirectly whilst functioning more independently. Horses provide a positive emotional effect as dogs do.

There are different types of AAT with horses:

Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational or speech therapy treatment strategy that utilises equine (horse) movement. The aims andgoals are therapy based.

Therapeutic Riding is with a Riding for the Disabled Instructor, who has trained to work with people with disabilities, under the supervision of a therapist. The aims and goals are therapy based, but ridingskills are also taught.

Riding for the Disabled is with a Riding for theDisabled Instructor. The aims and goals are to teach horse riding.

Para-Equestrian Sport is for riders with a disability who are competent enough to ride independently and/or compete. The aims and goals are to compete at shows and/or enjoy recreational riding.

South African Riding for the Disabled (SARDA) provides riding opportunities to people with disabilities, especially children. Lisa McCallum, a BSc Occupational Therapist, is a SARDA instructor at the Sleepy Hollow Therapeutic Riding Centre in the Western Cape, affiliated to the Equine Assisted Therapy Association of South Africa. She was featured on Carte Blanche and has an extensive background in training with AAT horses. Lisa's therapies can be claimed from medical aid and/or tax.

"My interest in horses was perked when I was eight and I got a pony. I realised then what horses could do for me. My aunt is a quadriplegic so I have been exposed to people with disabilities my whole life."

She studied OT, then specialised in hippotherapy before joining SARDA. "Riding Therapy makes use of activities and games that have been carefully designed to improve motor coordination, flexibility and balance. It benefits cerebral palsy and spina bifida and these benefits are physical, emotional and mental."

Much of the therapy has to do with the movement of the horse. "The horse's movements are rhythmic. A person who, for example, is unable to walk, will experience this gentle movement as similar to a human walk. This will improve their functioning. When seated on a moving horse the human pelvis moves as it would when a person walks. So the person experiences what walking would feel like, i.e. weight shift, rotation, range of movement and normalisation of muscle tone. A person has to re-balance eight times in one stride of a horse's walk," she explains.

The horse can take a wheelchair user to places otherwise inaccessible and the psychological benefits are as great as the physical. "Riding can give a person confidence and emotional well-being."

Calm natured horses are chosen for AAT. "They are also reliable and we will match a horse with a person according to height, weight and difficulties.The instructor is always assisted by volunteers."

"Therapeutic riding is usually done by a SARDA instructor with the input of a therapist. Hippotherapy can only be done by an OT, physical or speech therapist. We are trying to change this as there are other therapists out there who can use this therapy."

"The idea is not to keep someone in therapy, but rather to get them to move through the therapy to a level of riding where it is just for fun or for sports," says McCallum. This was the path of Beijing Paralympic gold medalist, Philippa Johnson. An avid rider before her accident in October 1998 she gotback into the saddle with McCallum - winning numerous competitions andqualifying for London 2012.

"Horse riding has so many benefits. The horse creates motivation thereby causing boundaries to be pushed and goals easier to reach. There is a bond and spiritual aspect that cannot be quantified by research. When a person is on a horse, any physical or other stigma is removed. The riding is also fun, so it is not seen as therapy or work."

MagisterArtium in Clinical Psychology: "Physically Disabled Adolescents' Experience of Therapeutic Riding. A Phenomenological Investigation" by Suzette Weideman, North West University