A.A.T. stands for Animal-Assisted-Therapy.  In A.A.T., animals are used by the owner handler to help deliver various forms of therapy to people in need due to physical or emotional disadvantages or limitations.  

Animals are such a wonderful gift to our lives.  Those of us with animals know just how much time, effort, energy and patience they can consume, and yet they give so much back to us in the way of unconditional love, forgiveness with the wag of a tail, and joyful memories that our efforts are rewarded bountifully!  As we train them, we are really training ourselves too.  We learn patience and consistency through them.  They bring smiles to our faces and make us laugh.  They help relieve our stress.  We can do so many activities with them that we might otherwise not get involved in.  They are our friends and companions.  Dogs are even known as 'man's best friend'.

Yet, there seems to be more to this than we have understood.  A friend recently shared with me how she took her dog, Libby, to a support group for women with post traumatic stress.  I'll let her tell you the story:   

    We went around the circle introducing ourselves, and everyone spoke until it was the turn of a very young woman- about 17- who did not speak, didn't react to hearing her name and who would not look at anyone there. She wouldn't talk to the doctor, her mom or her sister who came with her- didn't even blink or acknowledge anyone at all.

     Libby pulled away from me and walked across the circle, and refused to come back when I called her- a first for her when working! She looked at the girl who wouldn't speak, then she leaned into her, then laid her head on the girl's knee, and when she still wouldn't look at Libby, Libs actually got up into her lap with her front paws and moved her head until she was looking directly into the girl's eyes.

     Suddenly, the girl focused, looked at Libs, and then slowly reached out and grabbed Libby around the neck. She buried her face in that big white ruff and began to just sob! She held Libby rocking and sobbing and screaming at one point- Libs sort of laid her head on the girl's head and snuffled her hair, but otherwise didn't move.

     After a few minutes, the girl was quiet, then Libs got down and just stayed next to her with her head in the girl's lap. The girl finally spoke - for the first time in 7 months of going to these meetings! She told us her name, and said that she had been kidnapped and gang-raped for a week before police found her. She had been left for dead. After this, she hadn't spoken until she opened up for Libby!
Therapy dogs bring laughter and confidence
(story used with permission of Cindy Naas Stapleton)

How can this be?  I believe animals are a special gift to us from God himself, and that he has put special abilities and senses in them that we do not fully understand because we have never been...well, we have never been an animal!  They have the ability to touch something in our soul that people sometimes cannot reach,  and that special connection can help and change us. 

I began doing Animal-Assisted Therapy in Thailand after completing a course in Animal-Assisted Therapy and training my dog to become a registered therapy dog.  Of course, a dog does not have to be registered to love people and have that special connection with them!  However, I wanted to know how to train him and myself in all the ways I could so that we were both well-prepared and could go into different facilities as a registered team.

We worked with orphaned children at the request of their adoptive mum whose goal it was that year to work on their emotional development, particularly on building trust.  Children who have been abandoned for hours as babies or suffered other traumatic events can struggle to trust people.  Jasper and I worked with them to help them learn to trust, to build confidence and self-esteem.  It was wonderful to watch children who were initially too scared to even touch Jasper, at last learn to stroke and brush him, walk him on a lead, run with him and play 'fetch'.  One little boy developed a whole new love of animals, and grew in compassion.

Other animals can also be used in therapy
We used other animals to help the children too, including rabbits and ducks.  Each of these, while not offering quite the same connection that comes from a dog, contributed to the children's emotional growth.

I come from a broken home where there were frequent arguments, some violence and a multitude of divorces.  Two of the mainstays in my life as a child were being outdoors in the countryside and the animals around me.  I could not have known that later in life my love of animals would be resurrected not only for me to enjoy, but also to be a blessing to other children!

Jasper, my therapy dog, later became unwell and with the help of others, we raised the money for him to go to Canada with us when we moved, where his health was able to improve a bit.  When we moved back to the UK, he went to his new permanent and loving home with a family in North America.  Thank you, Jasper for the blessing you were to our family, and to so many others.  We will always miss you, and one day, I hope I have another collie with the same bomb-proof temperament as yours.

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