As a speech-language pathologist with more than 17 years of experience, I thought I had seen it all. I was starting to wonder, what’s next for me? A specialty? A career change? A facility change?
Around this time, we added a bulldog puppy named Teddy to our family. We took him to visit my brother and his family. At that visit, I unknowingly discovered my next path in life. The connection between Teddy and my nephew—recently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder—was remarkable.
My nephew fell in love with him at first sight. His excitement led to him engaging with us socially—essentially for the first time—using appropriate eye contact and verbal initiation. I’ll never forget his repeated initiations of, “Wheuh Teddy?” and my feelings of amazement and pride in both my nephew and Teddy when I saw their interactions. Teddy became the social bridge connecting my nephew to my family.
In Southeastern Louisiana University’s Pet Project, therapy dogs bolster traditional clinic services.
Shortly after, I enrolled in an online animal-assisted therapy certificate program at the University of Denver. After I earned my certification, I tried—unsuccessfully—to get permission to include therapy dogs in the two public schools (and districts) where I work. I remembered I teach perseverance and thus needed to model it.
Motivating learning, reducing anxiety
I decided to launch a private practice in Farmington, Connecticut, in 2017. I partner with registered therapy-dog teams—a therapy dog and handler—only for clients I feel would benefit from the animal-assisted treatment. The handler signs a confidentiality agreement. The parents sign a consent form to allow animals in therapy. I also maintain an added layer of liability insurance.
I don’t charge families for any extra costs—I just consider this approach another tool. Handlers work as volunteers, so costs are minimal. However, I do spend extra time scheduling handlers for those clients.
Overall, I see far more benefits than disadvantages to including animal-assisted therapy as an SLP. For some clients—especially those with low motivation—having a live animal in a room is sometimes all they need. They can “talk” to the dog, telling the dog what they’re working on. They can earn breaks with the dog, during which they toss them toys or give them treats.
I also target specific speech and language skills with via the dog: I ask clients to follow directions with the dog or to give verbal directions to the dog. For other clients, the therapy dog might reduce anxiety, thereby increasing access to speech and language skills and instruction.
Clients often perceive animals as nonjudgmental, making it easier for them to transition into the session and participate in exercises they might otherwise find difficult. Clients often talk to me more willingly when the dog is present.
When clients’ motivation and emotional factors improve, their social engagement with others also typically increases. They may verbally and/or nonverbally interact with others more often through interactions with the dog. They might initiate and participate in reciprocal conversations with others through this shared topic of interest. Overall, I see their interaction increase and communication skills improve.
I’ve experienced such positive results in the two years I’ve included the therapy dogs, I find myself coming up with new ways of including them almost daily. It just takes a little creativity to use them to meet a client’s needs.
Do you use therapy dogs or other animals in your practice? Please share ways you incorporate them into treatment or questions you have in the comment section below.
Ashley Kalosieh, MA, CCC-SLP, founded a private practice, Speech Path, LLC, where she focuses on pediatric through young adult clients with a specialty in animal assisted therapy. Follow her on Facebook @speechpathslp or Twitter @speechpathllc. email@example.com