Examining the Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

By Grant Martin

Mia enjoys a visit to the Bell Center, where she visits each week to work with children suffering from cerebral palsy.

Mia Rowe is a master motivator. Even though she’s only five years old—and her conversation is limited to barks and licks—Mia has a gift for encouragement that transcends age and language. In her presence, physically challenged toddlers forget their pain and start to run, while shy readers learn to speak out and enjoy a good book.

Mia and her sister Stella are Cavalier King Charles spaniels belonging to Jan Rowe, Dr.O.T., an associate professor of occupational therapy in the UAB School of Health Professions. Together, the three volunteer through Hand-in-Paw, a Birmingham affiliate of the Delta Society, which is the leading international resource for animal-assisted therapy and activities.

“Most people are familiar with service animals and the types of assistance that they can provide, but there are many other ways that animals assist in therapy,” Rowe says. “Animals can get through to people when other methods have failed.”

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Dog Bites Data

UAB psychologists are teaming with the Delta Society on another research project that is testing a virtual solution to help children avoid dog bites. David Schwebel, Ph.D., director of the UAB Youth Safety Lab, and graduate student Aaron Davis, the study’s principal investigator, are evaluating the Blue Dog software program from Britain’s Blue Dog Trust.

Blue Dog presents a series of games that help children learn to avoid behaviors that can aggravate an animal, such as pulling its tail or ears or making direct eye contact. After children complete the program, UAB researchers will observe their behaviors with real dogs—provided by the Delta Society—to evaluate the software’s effectiveness as a teaching tool.

“If this computer game successfully teaches young children to interact safely with their pet dogs, it could have enormous impact on reducing accidental bites,” says Schwebel.

Natural Connections

This summer, Rowe hopes to prove that point once again when she leads a UAB student research group studying the effectiveness of animal-assisted activities in occupational therapy. The research builds on a similar study conducted a few years ago by UAB physical-therapy students that was led by Claire Peel, Ph.D., a faculty member in the Department of Physical Therapy and UAB associate provost for faculty development. “They concluded that children with Down syndrome were more engaged in gross motor activities when the animal was there as part of therapy,” Rowe says.

Those findings were no surprise to longtime volunteers Rowe and Peel, who have been volunteering their pets, and their expertise, to Hand-in-Paw for years. Peel’s dog Moses is a regular visitor to UAB’s palliative care unit and the adult geriatric unit at the UAB Center for Psychiatric Medicine. “He is a great comfort for patients who are depressed, anxious, or agitated,” Peel says.

Each week, Rowe brings Mia to Homewood’s Bell Center for Early Intervention Programs, a facility for children with developmental disabilities from birth to three years of age. Mia’s duties include playing follow the leader and fetching balls, says Rowe. “Her main task is to get the children to participate in things that sometimes can be uncomfortable for them.” Developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome and cerebral palsy can make what appear to be routine activities quite difficult, Rowe explains. But the chance to play with a gentle dog often encourages children to forget the discomfort and get moving.

Sometimes, the pets know what it’s like to overcome physical challenges. Rowe points to a local pet partner named Mike—an Australian shepherd who is completely deaf. “It’s very interesting to see how a person responds to an animal with disabilities, particularly if that person is disabled as well,” Rowe says. “Sometimes they’re more willing to cooperate and to try things with the animal that they might not want to do with a teacher. There’s a compatibility there that seems to come about naturally.”

Story Time

Hand in Paw's pet partners volunteer at local libraries, where children can sign up to read to the animals.

Therapy dogs also volunteer at local libraries as part of the “Sit, Stay, Read” program, says Rowe. The program is intended for children who have difficulty reading aloud—but the animals aren’t there to instruct. “If a child is a slow reader or has difficulty reading, it can be intimidating to have to read out loud,” Rowe explains. “By allowing them to read to a dog, you create an environment where they know their ability is not being judged or evaluated, so they’re more likely to take chances and maybe even to come back with questions.”

Other partners with Hand-in-Paw include the UAB Spain Rehabilitation Center, Children’s Hospital, and Birmingham’s Engel School for children and adolescents with emotional and behavioral problems. In those venues, the pets’ main duties are to bring smiles to children’s faces and allow emotionally challenged kids to learn how to give common commands.

“We’ve had all kinds of dogs, from rottweilers to yorkies, but we’ve also had cats,” Rowe says. “The type of animal is not that important as long as it has the right temperament. An animal with the proper temperament can be useful in a surprising number of ways if they’re just given the opportunity.”

More Information

Department of Occupational Therapy


Delta Society