The Role and Impact of Animals With Pediatric Patients

Anna Tielsch Goddard, MSN, BS, RN, CPNP-PC; Mary Jo Gilmer, PhD, MBA, RN-BC, FAAN


Pediatr Nurs. 2015;41(2):65-71. 

In This Article

History of Animal-assisted Therapy

Dr. Boris Levinson is often credited as a pioneer in use of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) (Rossetti & King, 2010). A practicing child psychologist in the 1960s, he theorized that his patients were less anxious and had less resistance to therapy when his dog, Jingles, was involved in the sessions (Levinson, 1965). Levinson noticed that one of his child patients, who had previously refused to speak during sessions, would interact and speak to Jingles prior to his sessions. Levinson conjectured that Jingles allowed him to build a sense of rapport with his patients and felt Jingles was an "extension" in therapeutic milieus (Fine, 2006; Levinson, 1969). Jingles was a transitional object to facilitate the relationship between Levinson and his pediatric patient (Levinson, 1969). Levinson then began to bring Jingles to sessions with other pediatric patients and later coined the term "pet therapy" in 1964.

Succeeding Dr. Levinson's work was Dr. Samuel Corson who used dogs to implement his biophysical research with in-patient psychiatric patients. Dr. Corson continued this work through his career and was labeled the "father of pet-assisted therapy" after his death in 1998 (Thomas, 1998). Dr. Corson was a professor of psychiatry and biophysics at Ohio State University who originally focused his research on the effects of stress on dogs. Corson recalled a case of an adolescent with selective mutism who was unresponsive to treatment who opened up and began speaking when a dog was brought to his room (Corson, Corson, Gwynne, & Arnold, 1977). Corson then began focusing his work on pet-assisted therapy and the effects pets had in psychotherapy with patients. He started to publish manuscripts reporting the positive social interactions and influences on the patients and the staff when dogs were brought to the psychiatric inpatient and milieus with the psychiatry profession (Corson et al., 1975, 1977). This research has been credited as a catalyst for interest into the use of animals, particularly dogs, in therapy with people (Thomas, 1998).

Other therapists have labeled animals as having a "social lubricant" effect with patients; humans with animals are sometimes seen as more approachable and provide a topic for conversation (Fine, 2006; Nimer & Lundahl, 2007; Rossetti & King, 2010). For example, patients who are more withdrawn may engage in increased communication with new acquaintances in the presence of a dog (Rossetti & King, 2010).

Florence Nightingale also used what she called "animal-companion therapy" for her patients who were sick and disabled (Snyder & Lindquist, 2010). Nightingale described the benefits of an animal-companion as a source of therapy to her patients. She used pets with wounded soldiers in the early 19th century and found that pets were companions in the healing process (Chu, Liu, Sun, & Lin, 2009). Sigmund Freud has been credited with recognizing the role of animals in therapy and stated that his dog had a "special sense." Freud believed the calming presence of his canine was especially useful with children and would bring his Chow Chow, "Jo-Fi," to therapy sessions (Fine, 2006).

Pet Partners, formerly known as the Delta Society, is the international non-profit professional organization for volunteers interested in AAT. The organization provides professional resources, training programs, and research for volunteers interested in animal based therapeutic services (Pet Partners, 2012a). Pet Partners has trained over 10,000 handler/animal teams in both their companion animal and therapy animal programs. The organization is funded through individual, foundation, and corporation financial support (Pet Partners, 2012a).