The Magical Therapist

Big…Tiny…Two legs, but maybe four…

Wings, scales, fur…

To some, it may be a surprise that many of the world’s top therapists rein from …the animal kingdom. For quite some time now, it’s been widely known that animals decrease stress, and elevate mood, which provides pain relief in humans.  Now I’m not speaking about your family pet (although they deserve respect as well),  I’m specifically referring to the hard working horses, dogs, cats, chickens (yes… chickens), dolphins,  and lizards, that are frequently partnered with individuals who need and benefit from a variety of services such as speech, physical, social, and cognitive behavioral therapy (just to name a few).

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is becoming a common option for those in need. Many believe this is a new concept, but AAT has been in practice for over a 100 years.  In 1859,  Florence Nightingale, known as the founder of modern nursing stated:

A small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick or long chronic cases, especially.”

(Florence herself had a pet owl named Athena, which gave her great comfort)


Great Horned Owl (but not Athena 😉 )

Along with the benefits mentioned above, animals provide unconditional friendship, and can act as an ice breaker in social situations, which in turn, facilitates the development of communication skills. They also teach responsibility. From 2012 to 2014, I had the wonderful opportunity to work as a volunteer coordinator for a therapeutic riding organization that operates out of Riverdale Stables, in the Bronx.  Therapeutic riding is an equine assisted activity and has numerous benefits. In general, since a horses gait moves in sync with a rider’s body, it improves many physical ailments such as, lack of flexibility and balance, while developing muscle strength.

Many of our participants had a wide range of life challenges. Some were non-verbal and wheelchair bound, others suffered from post-traumatic stress, attention deficiency, as well as heightened sensitivity issues. Although you can find the statistics of the success rate in an equine therapeutic environment, I was lucky enough to experience it first hand, and take it from me…the results were simply amazing. There were many times when a nonverbal child entered the program, who had very little success with other therapies, either did verbalize or at least, express some lip movement (indicating the effort to verbalize), at the end of their 12 weeks riding session.  Other times, individuals who were wheel chair bound, and had limited ability to sit up for extended periods, improved their chore strength by the end of a three month session. Physical accomplishments were seen weekly and monthly. Young adults and children, quickly learned how important it was to follow instructions as well as give instructions, in order to take care of the pony they’ve developed a relationship with. The accomplishments these equine partnerships facilitated were priceless to the participants and their families.  At this time,  I’ve only scratched the surface of equine assisted therapy, so if you would like to learn more, please visit PATH International .

 Next up….Man’s best friend

Service dogs are specially trained to provide support for a number of unique challenges. Specifically referring to autistic children (and adults), one of the most nerve wracking situations that families are confronted with is the child/adult that wanders. We all know when a caretaker turns away, how those crucial few seconds could quickly turn into a life- threatening situation – So how does an autism assistant dog come into play? Well, most autism specific dogs are secured to their partner with a harness, one for the dog, and one for the human.  When a wanderer decides to go off on their own, most people think that a dog would actually run with a bolting partner, but these dogs are specifically trained to hold their ground. They are trained to freeze as soon as they feel any abrupt pull or sense any type of wandering behavior (typically moving away from the group). Now of course, this partnership depends on the size  and need of the person, which is why all potential buddy’s are evaluated extensively.   Pretty amazing right!  Families and care takers can feel more at ease knowing their trusty canine partner is literally, holding it down. Another important and appealing fact is that the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) indicates that service dogs are allowed pretty much everywhere.  Just as with my brief introduction to equine assisted therapy, I’ve only scratched the surface with our canine friends. If you would like to learn more, please visit the American Service Dog Association.

Now our next therapist resides full time in the water. That’s right! I’m talking about the amazing dolphin. Similar to our dog therapist, dolphins provide specific services to help people with a wide range of challenges such as, physical disabilities, social anxieties, at risk youth, and veterans. Since Dolphin Human Therapy must take place at special facilities (for obvious reasons), most programs are designed as a therapy vacation where someone in need, with their family, can spend a week learning (or reiterating) new skills, social bonding, and more, alongside energetic, intelligent, and compassionate dolphins.


One of the most unusual, but accommodating therapist is the lizard. Yes, lizards are now becoming popular under the category of Emotional Support Animals (ESA) and this makes perfect sense. Since lizards don’t have any fur, there’s no concern about allergies, and yes, lizards can be cuddly. If handled frequently by an owner, the bearded dragon (shown below), is known to behave like the perfect lap dog… with scales. Lizards are great to read to and of course, wonderful listeners.

William listening attentively

Another interesting emotional support animal is the rat.  Rats are very intelligent and provide a various forms of support, but in my opinion, the most interesting service provided is when these rats are specifically trained to alert individuals prior to a seizure. Since rats are extremely sensitive to their environment, they have the ability to pick up on very minor vibrations. These rats are trained to hang on to their partner, sort of like a parrot, and when they feel any tiny muscle spasms, they immediately lick the side of the individuals face or neck to alert them of the impending seizure. This service gives the individual ample time to either call for help, or administer medication that would halt the episode.

Last but not least, we can’t forget about our feline therapist. Cats serve as great companions to many. Since cats usually operate on their own time, their services fall into the category of being a companion animal, as an ESA.

It’s well known that cats have the ability lower blood pressure, ward off depression, and instill a sense of purpose but there is one famous cat named Oscar, that has a talent like no other.  Oscar was adopted as a kitten by the staff of the Steer House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Rhode Island, and as an adult cat, he holds a very important job. Each day he gets up, surveys the centers residents, and determines if they are close to death.  If Oscar confirms its time, he notifies the staff by curling up to the resident,  and remaining by their side.  Being able to predict the death of residents allowed the staff to notify loved ones in advance, and at about eleven years old, Oscar has comforted over 30 patients during their last breath. Can Oscar see death? Some scientists believe he may have the ability to smell cell death, just as some dogs can smell cancer. No one is for sure how he determines when its someones time, but one thing for sure, is that Oscar provides an amazing service to all the residents, family, and staff of Steer House.

I hope after reading this very brief overview, you can see how special these unsung heroes are to so many people around the world.

These therapists are truly magical.


All Images, Audio & Artwork  © 2018 N.Fontaine 

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