How can animal assisted therapy be used in speech and language therapy?

Meet Ralph, who joined the Small Talk Speech and Language Therapy team in May 2016. He has been invaluable since then.

How do you use a dog in speech and language therapy?

I use him as a “co-therapists” on most occasions but as part of an animal assisted activity on others.

Co-therapist

My caseload comprises children with ASD and complex communication difficulties, and children and young people with selective mutism. The common theme running through them is anxiety.

Having a dog in the session allows the child to relax more. To be greeted by a wagging tail and wet nose (by Ralph, not me!) detracts and distracts from the fact they are coming to a therapy centre. He sits by them as they talk to me with his head on their knee where necessary, and will offer a neck to cry on as they tell me how bad the situation can be. In a strange way, I can often tell how anxious a child or young person is by the level of his greeting. The more anxious the child or young person, the more he greets like an old friend. Increased anxiety increases his effort. Children are surprisingly good at hiding how anxious they are so this is often the best gauge. He’s always more tired after a really stressed child too.

Animal-assisted activity

Working with children with selective mutism (SM) is always a challenge and no two cases have been the same in my experience. I started to work with Millie, a nine-year-old girl who was making good progress at school. She had moved from stage 2 of the stages of confident speaking (Johnson, M and Wintgens, A) where she was co-operative, but not communicating to stage 5, so could now read aloud with her TA. This had taken approximately 4 weeks.

My role had been to train staff and help them be able to put the plan in place, but all credit must go the school as they had religiously carried out the activities at least three times a week. I wanted to run similar exercise at home so we could work across the environments she encountered on a daily basis.

Millie knew exactly what she wanted to achieve: to be able to speak to her 3 uncles who were very good to her, especially in the absence of any other father figure. They had taken her to lovely places, bought her beautiful presents and loved her to bits, but they had never heard her voice.

Ralph is a Labrador, so he is never going to turn down the opportunity of a training game involving biscuits or treats. He also loves a game of throw where he throws the ball back to the child.

We set up an obedience training session where she practised getting the dog to ‘sit, wait, down and come’. At first with me there, her voice was very quiet, almost a whisper – but after just a few minutes her voice became stronger, louder, and her commands much more assertive. I then asked her if it was Ok to bring one uncle into the kitchen so he could see what a good dog trainer she was. She agreed and the first uncle came in.

We had discussed that they must not react to this wonderful sight as would be their instinct, as this would be counter-productive. He just therefore, casually said, ‘What a good trainer, Millie!’ and went out again. He had appeared very calm but did a huge fist pump the other side of the door!

We repeated this with the other two and then they all came in together; Millie’s voice was clear and calm. Her mother texted me a few days later to say that Millie was now able to talk to her uncles as long as they didn’t ask her questions with a high language load – she could answer yes/no, forced alternatives and simple questions. Millie got her own dog shortly afterwards, who further supported her to generalise her progress.

The value of pet ‘therapy’ is widely accepted as a powerful aid to stimulation, motivation and communication

Ralph is a Labrador, so he is never going to turn down the opportunity of a training game involving biscuits or treats. He also loves a game of throw where he throws the ball back to the child. There will be cases where I can’t use AAT as where the child might hurt the dog or perhaps the child dislikes dogs. I always ask if the child or young person wants to have him in the session; it’s not an automatic choice.

‘The value of pet ‘therapy’ is widely accepted as a powerful aid to stimulation, motivation and communication’ (Levinson). My work has shown they can be a great asset in speech and language therapy for ASD and more complex communication, or for children and young people with SM.

This is a guest essay by Libby Hill. Want to write for us? Visit www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk/essay-submission or email editorial@dogstodaymagazine.co.uk

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