VisAbility’s Children and Youth Services has introduced a ground-breaking new program, the first of its kind in Western Australia. Led by occupational therapists, Dog-Assisted Therapy uses highly trained Labradors to deliver creative ways for children to achieve their therapy goals.
The program is being offered to schools and families out of VisAbility’s Victoria Park hub, with plans to expand the service to multiple schools and locations in the future. Black Labrador ‘Bazza’ is the program’s flagship therapy dog.
What is Dog-Assisted Therapy?
Dog-Assisted Therapy uses the assistance of a trained dog to achieve specific therapy goals. It can help youngsters who are withdrawn or have difficulties with self-regulation to relax and open-up. It’s also a great way of reducing anxiety and it can give a young child a focus or interest to develop motivation. It encourages emotional regulation and helps with play and self-language skills.
Children of all ages, with a range of disabilities, can benefit from Dog-Assisted Therapy. These may include autism, global developmental delay, intellectual or learning disability, sensory impairment or physical disability.
The service is based around specific goals – generally lasting six sessions in duration.
Why Dog-Assisted Therapy sees results
As part of delivering the Dog-Assisted Therapy program, our team of occupational therapists work with parents to come up with a plan to suit their child’s needs. A session usually lasts one hour and involves the child, therapist, dog and parents/caregivers.
Feedback from the therapy has been overwhelmingly positive.
“There’s only one drawback and that’s when the dog goes,” explains Georgia Rogers, mum to Mia.
Mia, who is 4 ½ years old, has cerebral palsy, vision impairment and doesn’t communicate with words.
As a parent of a special needs child, if you see your child happy, it makes you happy. Mia stretched out to the dog from her wheelchair.Georgia Rogers
Mum to Mia
“I could definitely see affection there between the two of them, she was just grinning from ear to ear. To witness this deep connection and understand how my daughter was feeling was extra special,” Georgia adds.
VisAbility Occupational Therapist Paige Holmes, has witnessed first hand the great outcomes of Dog-Assisted Therapy.
“Having someone, or something else, which is non-verbal is a real boost to a child who doesn’t speak. A dog can lift a child’s confidence as they communicate through touch and warmth,” she explains.
Dog-Assisted Therapy can also be useful for those with mobility issues and be an incentive for children to become more active.
“Deenika has hip issues and so is in a wheelchair. We wanted to try this therapy as we believed it would help her to stand up so she’d be less reliant on her frame,” explains her mother Emily Burman.
“She sat with him, brushed him and walked him with his harness on. This took some of her weight and gave her the confidence to be upright.”
Sessions have been put on hold for the time being because of impending surgery. But her mum says six-year-old Deenika still speaks about Bazza and hopes to have more sessions following major hip surgery later this year.
“For those who are sceptical, I say give it a go. We went on walks with Bazza and it definitely encouraged Deenika to open up to strangers and to become more independent,” reiterates Emily.
Partnering with like-minded experts
As one of WA’s leading therapy providers, VisAbility has a long history of partnering with expert organisations and innovating to deliver new service programs like Dog-Assisted Therapy.
The highly respected Guide Dog program is run by Guide Dogs WA, who have more than 60 years’ experience in providing Guide, companion, therapy and assistance dogs to people throughout Western Australia.
Nationally, Guide Dogs has been voted Australia’s most trusted charity brand for five years running. Guide Dogs WA is also a member of the Guide Dogs Australia alliance and Assistance Dogs International (ADI).
The NDIS and Dog-Assisted Therapy
Therapy sessions can be funded as part of a package under the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Occupational therapist Brianna Pemberton says it’s a different area to work in.
“It allows me to think outside of the box, adding a dog into their therapy adds an extra dimension and can be both challenging and rewarding”, says Brianna.