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Debra Buttram

ABSTRACT: Animal Assisted Activity/ Education: Increased communication possibilities

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Animal Assisted Activity and Education: Increased communication possibilities for persons with severe psychophysical disabilities
Debra Buttram**, Marcello Galimberti** - Monica Radealli* -*Centro Socio Educativo, of Lecco, La Vecchia Quercia Cooperative, 23900 Lecco, Italy - **AIUCA, 23842 Bosisio Parini (LC) Italy A.I.U.C.A. - Associazione Italiana Uso Cani d'Assistenza

Clients of the Socio-educational Centre are affected by severe psychophysical disabilities, most characterised by a strong closure towards the external world, often induced by their lack of interpretational and communicative instruments. Their communication is a combination of variations in muscular tone, sounds, vocalisations and gestures. The grave difficulties of the centre’s professional educators in finding appropriate stimulus for many clients, together with awareness that a dog’s use of non-verbal body language might be similar to some of the individuals, led to implementation of Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) and Animal Assisted Education (AAE) programs.

In 1997, only three clients were involved, but due to positive results and increased possibilities of communication were recognised, the number of persons involved increased. As of February 2004, 10 (9 females and 1 male with varying disabilities and ages ranging from 15 to 38 years) of the 24 persons frequenting the centre are involved. Four female special needs professional educators and specially prepared and evaluated handler-dog teams (Delta Society® Pet Partners®) work in the program with two educators and at least one team in each 90-minute weekly session. The handler is male and the dogs are male and female golden retrievers.

Depending on individual capability, we work on different levels of communication. Physical contact with the animal helps relax body tone, lowering anxiety and in turn facilitating reality exploration and self-perception. The potential of communication through the use of their own body is amplified through direct contact with the body of the dog. Feeling soft warm hair, hearing rhythmical breathing or a bark are strong incentives that can motivate desire for attachment and nourish a sense of self.

These rich relational experiences require new communicative codes and instruments for interaction with the dog; gestures are refined to become commands to which the animal responds, therefore building self-confidence and self-esteem. Facilitated communication using representative images, another valid tool, permits some to express their own desires and preferences. Individuals capable of verbal communication, learn new vocabulary inherent to the dog (objects, body parts, commands). The desire for non-mediated communication favours the capacity of functional self-expression with attention to posture and facial expressions.

Work procedures are educational: observation, planning, verification and remodulation. Improvement in psychophysical health brings improvement in quality of life, strengthening the activities and reinforcing communicative tools. Results are monitored using Service of European Quality ISO 9001:2000 evaluation instruments and video registration.

Given the positive results, virtually unobtainable previously, we believe AAA/AAE programs to be an indispensable means of allowing similar individuals to be immersed in a world of exchanges with others, to be recognised and accepted.

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