Animal Assisted Activities
In our increasingly hectic world, feelings of social isolation, dejection and apathy are common. As we become more disconnected from our communities and our feelings of inclusion within our society further fracture, we need more than ever to take a moment to step back from all the noise and reflect in a calm, compassionate space.
There are proven psychological and physiological benefits from spending time with animals: feelings of anxiety and alienation reduce, heart rate and blood pressure decrease and a feeling of contentment/fulfilment becomes possible. It is estimated that cat owners enjoy a 30% reduction in risk of heart attack, watching fish lowers blood pressure and that stroking a dog boosts the immune system.
Having bred pedigree Ragdoll cats since 2004, Lara Armitage is well-placed to recognise the potential therapeutic benefit in spending time with these gentle giants. She has renovated the workshop and cattery spaces at Birkhill House to create a warm and nurturing environment in which to commune with the cats and experience their grace firsthand. This is classed as animal assisted activity. Individuals as well as groups are welcome to book the space for hour-long slots of animal assisted activity.
What are the key features of animal assisted activity (AAA)?
There are three key features of AAA.
Firstly, visits have no specific premeditated aims or potential outcomes earmarked. Rather, a general session of chat (or quiet), enriched by the presence of Ragdoll cats, or a walk in the fields with the goats or alpacas serves as a type of therapeutic activity in and of itself.
Secondly, providers of AAA do not record any findings during the visits. The visits simply are what they are and the user knows if a benefit has been achieved by the way s/he feels at the end of the session in comparison to how s/he felt upon arrival.
Lastly, the time allocated to visits is variable, with each one taking as long as is required for the visitor to feel the positive benefits of time with the animals. These sessions are led by a qualified professional.
How is this different from animal assisted therapy (AAT)?
Unlike AAA, AAT is ‘goal-directed’, which means that the therapy taking place is dictated by a specific objective to be achieved. This could be physical, emotional, social or mental.
The animal visits taking place are employed in order to achieve the goal/s over a given, measurable period of time. These sessions are led by a trained therapist who may or may not also have a qualification in AAA/AAT theory.
Counsellors, therapists and other mental health practitioners wishing to incorporate animals into their sessions should contact Lara to discuss the possibilities. Treatment goals where AAT in counselling sessions can prove extremely useful are improving social skills, memory, self-esteem, trust and the ability to express feelings. It can also provide genuine affection and connection, bolster empathic capabilities, ease the patient's approach to coping with issues stemming from grief and loss and help in curbing certain recurring behaviours.
Recovery and support groups are welcome to book in to use the space in order to feel the benefit of feline companions during talking sessions. Simply phone or email Lara to discuss the needs of your group.
How might the presence of an animal change the boundaries of conversation?
Speaking to someone new or experiencing a new environment or circumstance can prove uncomfortable and difficult for some. But an animal’s presence can offset this discomfort by providing an alternate focus, allowing a person to be drawn out through the sharing of stories about previous pets, animal stories, animal-related books and/or television programmes. The effect of this sort of interaction provides a positive outcome to the conversation – laughter, lightheartedness and commiseration - where there might not have been one.
An animal’s presence has the potential to transform not only social anxiety or discomfort, as explained above, but anger and introspection. For someone struggling due to personal circumstances, illness, etc, the presence of an animal can go a long way toward taking his or her mind off of his or her own situation and allowing a focus that encourages curiosity and social engagement. Subjectivity can be transcended, allowing for a more positive focus.
Essentially, in the presence of an animal, boundaries that have been pre-assumed tend to become less observed. It becomes easier and less stressful for people to reach out to others – even in the simplest of ways, like saying hello when they might have said nothing. What emerges is an opportunity for a safe and neutral exchange.