ANIMAL ASSISTED EDUCATION IN A SOCIO-EDUCATIVE CENTRE FOR ADULTS WITH SEVERE PSYCHOPHYSICAL DISABILITIES
Centro Socio Educativo, Associazione Genitori ed Amici degli Handicappati, 23891 Barzanò (LC), Italy
Persons affected by severe psychophysical disabilities who have already terminated their normal scholastic activities frequent the Socio-educational Centre. They remain under the centre’s care for all their adult life from the age of 14 years. The diversity of age, disability, etc creates a need in the educational staff to search for new and different stimulus in order to permit both staff and clients to cultivate motivation for working in educational and relational areas, therefore obtaining a higher level of individual well-being. Individual Educational Plans (IEP), based on individual needs and educational goals, are prepared for each client and activities are planned in order to arrive at the specified objectives. One activity undertaken with some of the more difficult cases is Animal Assisted Education (AAE).
The first year was left as a quite experimental activity with a one-hour weekly session for a group of 4 individuals. Given the results achieved, in the second year we increased to two one-hour weekly sessions with one group of three and one individual program. At the current year we have three sessions, one of which is one hour with one individual and the other two sessions are 45 minutes of which one is individual and the other a group of two clients. The program is directed by the educational staff and given support by three specially prepared and evaluated handler-dog teams, registered Delta Society® Pet Partners®.
The AAE program has permitted us to work towards objectives, which are difficult to achieve otherwise. Indeed, we have verified that certain clients who experience severe relational problems (closure to reality, obsessions, isolation) are diverted from isolation through spontaneous interactions with the dog. The presence of the dog facilitates both client-educator and client-handler interactions. Within the setting, our clients find strong motivation for dialogue, with the dog often stimulating discussions. What is particularly important to us is the fact that this motivation is carried forward into other moments as the clients tell others (friends, educators, parents, etc) about their experiences with “their” dog.
Some individuals work on verbal communication, implementing vocabulary and improving pronunciation through speaking to and about the dog, giving commands, etc. For individuals without verbal communication, facilitated communication with representative images is implemented in order to allow the individuals to express what they desire to do (pet, walk with the dog, offer water, etc) increasing capability for decision-making, bettering observational and communicative skills, increasing their possibilities to have control and therefore enhancing their self-esteem.
Petting, brushing, holding the leash during a walk, playing with the dog also permits friendly collaboration for physical movement for improved posture or motor ability.
AAE gives us the possibility to work towards specific goals in a relaxed, serene and cheerful relational environment.