Since time immemorial, human beings have shared a unique bond with various animals. The domestic dog has been a faithful companion to humans since the past 15 years (1). However, it is only recently that healthcare professionals have begun to realize what animal caregivers and everyday pet owners have known for years: that pets can have a therapeutic and calming effect on the human psyche. From petting a puppy, going for a swim with a dolphin, engaging in play activities with a dog to riding a horse, all these different activities involving animals can aid us in achieving psychological well-being.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy and how did it all begin?

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) revolves around the principle of improving the cognitive, emotional and overall well-being by means of animals possessing certain characteristics suitable for the problem in question. The animals generally used for this purpose are trained dogs, cats, horses, dolphins, rabbits etc. In the late 1800s, the therapeutic benefits of animals were also recognized by Florence Nightingale, who is considered the founder of modern nursing. She noted in her book “Notes on Nursing”, that small pets have the potential to reduce anxiety in patients (2). Sigmund Freud, known as “the father of psychoanalysis”, is also considered the pioneer of canine assisted therapy. He believed that canines have a unique sense and began using Jofi, his favorite dog during psychotherapy sessions (2). Moreover, the respected child psychotherapist, Boris Levinson, accidently discovered that a nonverbal and disturbed 9-year- old boy began communicating with Levinson’s dog, Jingles. He observed similar effects in other children with communication issues (2). The history of the human-animal connection, combined with mounting scientific evidence that animals help the overall well-being of humans, is now being used in clinical settings as a therapeutic modality for various disorders.

Sigmund Freud and his dog, Jofi (a Chow Chow) in 1937.

Image courtesy: Wall Street Journal

ASD and Animal Assisted Therapy:

A child with autism may have difficulty in connecting to or forming a bond with his/her peers, due to a lack of social skills. Animals make great companions in such cases, giving children an opportunity to connect with another being. This companionship plays a key role in the child’s overall development.

Individuals with ASD often face difficulty in focusing, responding to sensory stimuli, and communicating with others, all of which have been shown to improve after undergoing AAT.

A study conducted by Berry et al, 2013, suggests that introducing a dog to children with ASD can result in a reduction of stress, anxiety, and irritation and can also promote a more relaxed environment for those children (3, 4). Another study, analyzed the sensory and social benefits of therapeutic horseback riding on children with ASD. The results of this study showed that horseback riding had a positive effect on the participants' communication skills, along with a reduction in the severity of their ASD (5). Various trials on the effects of AAT in ASD have been conducted. A systematic review by O’Haire on fourteen trials revealed that dogs and horses are the most commonly used therapy animals (4). This review found that there was no significant difference between the use of horses or dogs and all the studies showed improvements in one or more ASD related categories and symptoms.


Canine Assisted Therapy: Kids interact with a therapy dog.

Image courtesy: Flickr

Equine or Horse Assisted Therapy: A child with a therapy horse

Image courtesy: ExpertoAnimal

Another developing area in the field of AAT is the ongoing research on the use of dolphins to benefit children with autism. This is called Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT). DAT can be used to improve motor skills and speech. It is now being used for children with speech deficits, learning disabilities, autism, Downs syndrome and other developmental issues.

Dolphins can be great therapy animals

Image courtesy: WikiMedia

Benefits of AAT:

  • Increased attention span.
  • Have more self-confidence
  • Transferable skills of empathy and relating to others
  • Have better sense of well-being
  • Helps to overcome sensory defensiveness.
  • Enhances problem-solving skills.
  • Helps the child learn about unconditional love.
  • Helps the child to relax and maintain a better state of mind.
  • Helps building and maintaining social skills.

Please note: It is very important to keep in mind that the child does not suffer from any allergies that could be caused or aggravated due to contact with animals.


  1. Hirst, K. Kris."Animal Domestication - Table of Dates and Places." ThoughtCo, Jan. 28, 2017, table-dates- places-170675.
  2. Ernst, L. (2014). Animal-assisted therapy: an exploration of its history, healing benefits, and how skilled nursing facilities can set up programs. Retrieved on May, 10, 2015.
  3. Berry, A., Borgi, M., Francia, N., Alleva, E., & Cirulli, F. (2013). Use of assistance and therapy dogs for children with autism spectrum disorders: A critical review of the current evidence. The journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 19(2), 73-80.
  4. Siewertsen, C. M., French, E. D., & Teramoto, M. (2015). Autism spectrum disorder and pet therapy. Adv Mind Body Med, 29(2), 22-25.
  5. Ward, S. C., Whalon, K., Rusnak, K., Wendell, K., & Paschall, N. (2013). The association between therapeutic horseback riding and the social communication and sensory reactions of children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 43(9), 2190-2198.