The HSBC's Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a powerful program employing volunteers and their companion animals to provide social therapy as comfort for children and adults with special needs or those experiencing life's stresses. Animals provide people with unconditional love and non-judgmental acceptance and companionship. They serve as catalysts for social interaction and as bridges to interpersonal communication and attachment. It's no wonder people love their pets so much.
When their program was first established, it served the elderly residents of nursing homes in Broward County. Today the program is well known in Broward, Dade and Palm Beach counties and has expanded to help abused, neglected, physically challenged and mentally ill people of all ages. Their AAT team visits more hospitals, hospice, mental health facilities, children's facilities, foster homes and group homes, in addition to Broward County Public Schools and Broward County Public Libraries. Currently they have over 100 dogs, four cats and one bird certified in the program.
The use of animal therapy in assisting people with special needs is not a new concept. There is ever-increasing evidence, with statistics to back it up that show that the emotional and psychological benefits of pet companionship have physiological counterparts as well. Pets can improve not only the intangible "quality of life" but also improve human health. Petting and caring for animals, particularly those with whom a bonded relationship has be established, can reduce blood pressure, slow the heart rate and improve survival rates from heart disease. Animal Assisted Therapy is being used in a wide variety of setting to help people with acute and chronic illnesses. The following are are part of their programs:
Wags and Tails Reading Program
The Wags and Tails Reading (W&T) Program is a research-based reading motivation program for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. Certified AAT dogs and their handlers visit students at participating schools and libraries. The intent of the program is to demonstrate how the dogs and their people can be instrumental in improving the literacy skills of children in a unique and fun manner. Each certified therapy team received specialized training through a series of classes prior to placement in the program.
The premise of the W&T program is that children will find reading to an animal less intimidating - a special time for them that is helpful and fun. Children are encouraged to read out loud to the animal, improving their literacy skills in a non-judgmental fashion which promotes learning. Each time a child sits down to read to one of the therapy dogs, the response is overwhelming. The children feel that this special time with the dog provides them with the motivation to become better readers.
In the year 200, the W&T program began in just one library in Broward County and has now been expanded to include 24 libraries across the county as well as several Broward County Schools. Approximately 1,000 children each year are reached through the reading program with their library partnership and an estimated 150 children through their school partnership.
The AAT team visits patients in almost every hospital in Broward County, calling on various floors to bring the joy of a pet's presence to those who are ill or recovering. Coral Springs Medical Center has seven AAT teams that visit the pediatric ward, stopping by patients' rooms and helping to reduce the stress and anxiety of the children. Many times when the children need to have blood drawn, the dogs are right there beside them; petting provides a wonderful distraction while the blood is being taken. The interactions between the dogs and the patients are remarkable.
The human-and-animal volunteer teams visit their assigned facilities and give the residents and patients an opportunity to pet and cuddle the animal, learn about the proper way to care for a pet, socialize with one another and tell stories about their own cherished animal friends. AAT visits can be as basic as a "meet and greet" or as structured as working on specific goals with individuals under the supervision of a trained staff member. The type of visit depends on the needs of the facility.