NIS implemented our AAT program, named Pet Pals, in the Fall of 2015 as an innovative support offered to children in conjunction with speech, occupational, or physical therapy. Students are recommended for this program based upon their individual profiles, teacher or therapist recommendation, and contingent upon parent approval.
Research documenting the efficacy of AAT is in its early stages, though AAT and related use of animals in intervention has become prevalent for a variety of settings and populations (Bone, 2013; Budahn, 2013; Busch et al., 2016; Friesen, 2010; Gee, Crist, & Carr, 2010). These include hospitals, senior living centers, trauma survivors, and persons with developmental disabilities. Animals have been purported to increase motivation, break down barriers to building relationships, and provide emotional support and comfort.
Since the inception of our program, we have been committed to exploring and documenting the impact the presence of specially-trained working dogs have during therapy sessions. After preliminary data collection was started during the first year of the Pet Pals program, we have since refined our focus. We currently have an ongoing research project that is designed to assess the extent to which the presence of and interaction with a dog in occupational therapy sessions has on student attention and focus, as well as the level of therapeutic support required in this context.
In the Spring of 2018, an official pilot research project with IRB (Independent Review Board) approval was initiated with students who were already part of the Pet Pals occupational therapy program. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the impact of the presence of a dog on the attention and focus of students engaged in table-based occupational therapy. This phase of the pilot research project has been completed and data analysis and results are pending. In the Summer of 2018, the second phase commenced with a smaller subset of the original students from the first phase. In this second phase, the goal is to look at the impact that the dogs have when directly incorporated into the table-based occupational therapy activity.
The next phase of the research project will commence in the Fall of 2018 and will be a year-long study with a new cohort of students receiving occupational therapy that have not yet participated in the Pet Pals program. The goal of this project will to examine the impact of animal assisted occupational therapy over a longer period of time, and will incorporate a stronger research design to better analyze the specific impact these sessions have on attention when compared with traditional occupational therapy treatment.