Friendship Needs No Words: The Rewards of Pet-Assisted Speech Therapy
Can Special Ed come to my birthday party? What kinds of stories does Truffle like to read? Is Lily due for a check-up? Can Surprise run fast? These well-formed questions are music to any speech pathologist’s ears but who are Special Ed, Truffle, Lily and Surprise? They are registered Pet Partners® who accompany me to work as a speech pathologist. CommuniK-9, Inc. is a speech therapy practice that incorporates specially trained Pet Partners®. Special Ed and Truffle are Ragdoll felines and Lily and Surprise are Papillion canines that all provide Pet-Assisted Therapy.
Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy services have been in existence since the early 1990’s. The benefits of human-animal interactions and interventions are well documented for use in rehabilitation settings, with the elderly, individuals who are suffering with metal illness and children with autism. The unconditional love and acceptance a pet offers has been know to calm fears, improve mood and physical well-being, lower blood pressure, reduce stress, boost self-esteem, and motivate, inspire and educate those who are lucky enough to have a pet included as part of their treatment plan.
There are many organizations across the US that train and evaluate animals of all kinds and their human handlers for pet-assisted work. I belong to the Pet Partner’s® organization, formerly the Delta Society® based out of Washington. Pet Partner® Teams (the Pet Partner and the Handler) are tested every two years and adhere to a comprehensive set of Standards of Practice. Animal-Assisted Therapy dogs are not service dogs, nor “companion” or “social dogs.” The services provided by CommuniK-9, Inc. are not “pet therapy services” but goal-directed speech and language therapy enhanced by the presence of a pet. It is remarkable the difference including a pet in the therapy session can be. Pet Partner sessions are eagerly anticipated and well planned. Inclusion of a pet is based on the desires and needs of the individual as well as the ability of the pet to prompt and support the acquisition of the identified target skills. Through video modeling, stories and low technology visual tools, my students first learn Dog Gone Safety Rules and must demonstrate through role-playing that they are Dog Gone Ready. Students are taught hand signals for commands (American Sign Language) that the dogs know well. Visuals and communication boards are used to sequence the session activities and remind students of the Safety Rules. Augmentative communication devices are programmed in advance with greetings, comments, questions and dog commands.
As all dog lovers know, our own dogs greet us with their whole bodies, often appearing over-excited and out of control, much like my students. The similarities between the two continue and my students relate to this. I have had more success teaching all aspects of social-language skills incorporating a pet than I have had running expensive and structured Social Skills programs. My students are taught to read and respond accordingly to the pet’s body language. Sit, stay and play takes on new meaning as my students attending, turn-taking, communication and nonverbal language skills expand. They learn the importance of making their bodies still so they can look and listen. They are fascinated by their power when the pet follows their commands. The pets are particularly helpful for desensitizing around the difficult themes of self-care, going to the doctor and behavior at a birthday party. The dogs are fabulous models for obstacles courses and the cats love being groomed, dressed-up and strolled about in baby carriage. Whether a cat or a dog, the Pet Partner® is a beneficial supporter for communication, language, voice, fluency and articulation therapies. Students are much more willing to say their speech sounds to the pet, tell or read them a story, have their hair brushed after grooming the pet, write them a thank you card or invitation. Many photos are taken to capture the session highlights and used in later sessions for numerous creative writing, spelling and literacy activities. Students use the pets as their Pet Pals (Pen Pals) and have on-going written communication that truly inspires their writing and willingness to share.
Pet-Assisted therapy continues to enthuse my work as I marvel at the responses my pets incite from my students. More importantly, they have taught us all that friendship needs no words.
By Sue Drouin, CCC-SLP