A network to share best practices for children with special needs
Off the top of my head, there are many ideas that come to mind with working with animals as assistants or as a therapeutic tools for students with disabilities and special needs. I think the most common animal is a dog. Used historically as a working service animal they also have be thought of as good companion/advocate animals as well with students with developmental disabilities. In many instances an animal seems to bridge a communication gap that a human cannot. I think immediately of Dr. Doolittle –walk with the animals, talk with the animals.
The next most common more therapeutic animal is the horse. I have had a great deal of experience with “Hugs for horses” or other therapeutic horseback riding programs. These are innovative ways to engage occupational/physical therapy with a fun recreational activity. The student also has the joy and pride in the accomplishment of riding a large animal. An owner of a private stable recently responded to her reason for involvement in such a program said “ It was due to my brother, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. He had great difficulty walking, but when I put him on a horse he rode fluidly with a big smile on his face. I’ve been training my horses ever since “
With such a technique you have the opportunity to address muscle strength , motor planning, proprioceptive and vestibular input that goes beyond a typical therapy setting. Often there is some caretaking responsibility for the student in addition, such as brushing or feeding the horses which also a adds a sense of ownership and responsibility.
The last but definitely the most unique is the dolphin. Now, I live near several “Swim with the dolphin” experiences, but I am talking about actually doing therapy in the water with dolphins. The closest place I have seen do this is in Key Largo called Island Dolphin Care. I am sure there are others, but this is what I have personal experience with. It is a gradual treatment experience over the course of a week and a relationship is formed between the dolphin trainer(who is on deck), the dolphin therapist(who is in the water) and the dolphin and child. It is one of the most magical animal communication experiences I have witnessed between a mammal and a child. It is on the expensive side, but if you ever get the opportunity to try it, go for it.
All in all, be open to using and exploring alternative ways to deliver for therapy and also the companionship and skill that working with animals can bring as well as the bond that an animal can bring.