It’s called Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and defined by the American Humane Society as;
… a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical health-care treatment process. AAT is delivered or directed by a professional health or human service provider who demonstrates skill and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions.
So what are we to make about Scout the Labrador who apparently is a skilled phonetician. In a recent article from the Missoulian newspaper, SLP Nancy Jo Connell takes her dog with her when treating children with language problems. Now, there’s some evidence (and not a lot) that pets such as dogs and cats can make someone feel better, and kids with autism appear to relate to animals.
But where do we draw the line on the claims made about AAT? How about here?
He has a big vocabulary. When children with speech problems use the right word the right way, he responds. When autistic children who have problems with self-expression speak, he responds. When deaf children sign to him, he responds.
Really? A big vocabulary? The dog? Has he been assessed on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test? Did he bark the answer or just paw the pictures? It’s always a good idea to be open minded but not so open that your brains fall out.
Here’s an explanation of how it works from Connell:
With Scout, the children don’t have to be “corrected” if they use the wrong word.
If Scout doesn’t respond, Connell and others simply encourage them to find the right sound or word.
“It’s not a corrective model,” she said. “We don’t tell them what’s wrong. If they say a word and Scout doesn’t respond, we say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t understand you.’ “
Ah, so the truth is not necessarily that the dog understands the kids but that this is more of an example of a therapist using facilitated communication with animal. If the assertion is that Scout can process human speech and “know” the answer to something, we’re going to need a little more evidence than kids “use the right words, he responds.”
The problem here is whether SLP’s as a profession are interested in evidence-based practice or not. We can choose to “go with our gut” because in the case of having dogs around the clinic, unless the pooch actually bites a client, there’s no law necessarily being broken, and if you are sincerely advocating for using your pet as a therapy tool the least you can do is provide some objective measures of intervention with and without “Fluffy,” “Spot,” or “Lassie.” Hopefully the claims for Scout’s vocabulary size and ability to discriminate correct and incorrect responses is more journalistic hyperbole than alleged practicum fact.
For a reasonably sober summary of AAT, you could stop by the website of the Interactive Autism Network and read their article on findings. They point out that, “there is little research-based evidence that AATs lead to specific gains by children with ASD, but interest in the topic is growing in parallel with the field of AAT itself.”
By all means enjoy your pets, but avoid outrageous claims about their clinical skills. And after all, if animals really are that smart, how long do you think it will be before employees replace you with Champion the Wonder Horse?