Video: Animal Assisted Therapy and Clients with FASD

This video identifies what animal therapy is and how it can be used as therapy for clients with FASD.

About this video

Production Date: November 24, 2009
Length: 1 hour 22 minutes
Presenter: Kristine Aanderson, MA
Download slide notes for this video (PDF, 30 pages)

Kristine Aanderson is a Registered Provisional Psychologist who specializes in Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). She has worked with the Chimo Project, an organization that helps persons and institutions implement AAT programs. She is the author of ‘Paws on purpose: Implementing an AAT program for children and youth, including those with FASD and developmental disabilities.’ The book is available through the Chimo Project. Her partner, Pippin, is a great therapy dog.


This video will help you understand:

  • what animal therapy is and how it can be used
  • animals commonly used for therapy
  • benefits of animal therapy and research implications
  • how animal therapy can be used for clients with FASD


  1. What is Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)? (4:11)
  2. Type and use of animals (8:32)
  3. Assessing client and animal suitability (11 :57)
  4. Benefits of AAT (4:05)
  5. Research (3:29)
  6. Strategies for clients with FASD (3:29)

What is Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a goal focused intervention that uses animals to help clients improve physical, emotional, social or cognitive functioning. AAT and FASD are a good fit because animals communicate non-verbally and in an inviting, positive way.

  • AAT isn’t pet therapy – it has activities involving animals but with no specific treatment goal in mind
  • AAT is strategic and is done by a professional

Type and use of animals

Petting an animal (such as a dog, cat, rabbit or horse) helps clients to be calm. Training animals is a good way to develop anger management skills.


  • help to teach boundaries
  • mirror a parental relationship
  • comfort clients
  • help develop fine motor skills through petting and brushing
  • can be less scary than dogs


  • help to calm clients
  • have been shown to work as well as common tranquilizers for calming clients


  • have been shown to connect with people who have disordered thinking patterns


  • can be used for physical, psychological and emotional therapy
  • they increase involvement and are great motivators
  • they are sensitive and mirror behaviours around them
  • can be used to teach self-regulation
    • example: to calm the horse, the person needs to be calm


  • watching fish can lower stress and anxiety


  • most popular choice because of:
    • their capacity for unconditional love
    • their intelligence
    • their ability to form a bond with a human
  • they can be used passively (petting) or actively (walking, teach dog tricks)

Assessing client and animal suitability

  • AAT is suitable for a person of any age with moderate to severe symptoms of FASD
  • not suitable for:
    • people who have poor motor control as they could hurt animal
    • those with allergies or asthma
    • those with a history of committing serious animal abuse
  • ensure a level of supervision suitable for the behaviours of the person
  • birds can be easily killed by a client with poor anger management
  • fish tanks can be tampered with – clients can put something in that will harm fish
  • match the animal with the person and purpose
    • for example: fish will not stimulate physical activity
  • consider client preference

Benefits of AAT

5 major benefits:

  1. Decreased anxiety
  2. Increased participation
  3. Increased motivation in session
  4. Increased in social interactions
  5. Decreased depression

Other benefits include:

  • increased motivation
  • reduced depression
  • reduced anxiety
  • increased communication
  • provides insight into behaviours
  • catalyst for conversations
  • incentive for therapy work
  • builds activity level
  • gives comfort
  • helps develop motor skills
  • clients work without thinking they are doing work
  • reduces stigma of treatment (idea of getting to play with dogs, not getting treatment)


Clients with FASD treated with AAT in a residential treatment setting showed the following improvements:

  • 60% decrease in physical aggression
  • 80% increase in life skills acquisition
  • 80% increase in ability to cope with stress
  • 80% improvement in emotional health
  • 60% improvement in functioning outside of therapeutic environment

Lieber (2003) led a 10 week study in which AAT dogs visited children in their elementary school. Parents, school counsellors and special education teachers noted that:

  • the children were less disruptive
  • they formed better peer relationships
  • they improved communication skills with adults

Research shows that counsellors using AAT or who have an animal in their office are seen as more professional and more approachable by clients. Professionals rated as more skilled and trustworthy encourage more disclosures.

Strategies for clients with FASD

  • use role-playing with the animal to teach skills such as self-grooming or nurturing others
  • use the pet for short-term support for behaviours with clear rules and fast consequences (example: good behaviour means the animal stays, bad behaviour means the animal goes away)
  • reduce isolation: have client be caretaker of the animal – animals can be great icebreakers and increase positive interaction
  • grief and loss: have the client talk to the animal, share the animal’s history (for example being adopted or taken away from mom)
  • self-care skills training: practice getting dressed in the morning on the animal, such as brushing hair and teeth on animal
  • social skills: practice skills on the animal and watch for feedback such as the animal’s reaction regarding boundaries – animal won’t always get it the first time, but that’s okay
  • improve speech skills:
    • some AAT animals are trained to do a command when it hears a certain sound
    • have client practice with the animals and the animal will respond when the right sound is heard
  • improve ability to follow instructions:
    • give instructions for how to play with the animal
    • for example the dog will run and get the ball if you place it on top of the desk
    • use the animal as an incentive to follow instructions
    • once the test is done, then you can play with the animal
  • encourage nurturing and empathetic behaviour:
    • have client care for the animal
    • take it for walks
    • feed it, groom it, play with it and show affection
  • to develop parenting skills, have parents teach the dog a new behaviour
    • such as sitting still on a chair
    • teach and give them a chance to practice principles of shaping
    • start with low criteria and work up
    • suitable punishment
    • such as taking a break, or putting the dog on a ‘time out’ without being angry
    • celebrating success
Modified: 2015-09-09
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