Animal Therapy For Children With Special Needs

A picture of dog

A child with special needs processes the world around them in ways that might vastly differ from our own perception, but that does not mean there is anything wrong with them. These children have a unique perspective on life that causes them to experience things in their own way, and it is our job as parents and educators to make sure we speak their language instead of forcing them to rely on our own.

If you are the parent to a child with special needs, you understand the struggles your child is facing on a daily basis and how emotionally troubling it can be for both of you. There are a number of different therapies available that can help your child’s development in several areas – physical, emotional, mental and behavioral – and each one presents a unique treatment plan tailored to your child’s own needs and goals. If you are looking for an alternative to the traditional therapies commonly available, try animal therapy instead.

What Is Animal Therapy?

Research shows that animals have the natural ability to improve our mood, lower our blood pressure and provide a pleasurable rush of feel-good chemicals; for children with special needs animals play an incredibly important role.

Everyone finds different ways to relax and unwind, and they’re not always the same as the next person. You might like to listen to music and read, but your husband likes to watch sports and work out. For a child with special needs, relaxation might be harder to come by, which is why an animal can work its therapeutic magic without the child ever knowing. Animals are naturally trusting and want to be accepted, just like children, and don’t judge us humans by our disabilities or limitations. A few hours a day or week with an animal can do wonders for a child with special needs.

Dogs and horses are the animals most used for animal therapy. They are able to be easily trained and are often calm and quiet to be around, which are great qualities for children that might get upset by barking or sudden movements. Having a dog assist with animal therapy can encourage interactive play, communication skills and showcase the appropriate behaviors when dealing with animals. The child can teach them basic commands which help with self-confidence, self-esteem, language, and delight in how the animal responds to their actions. During animal therapy with a dog, the child might be able to hug or kiss the animal and get affection in return. This unconditional acceptance can be a much-needed bright spot in a child with special need’s day.

Equine therapy uses horses to help children with varying disabilities or handicaps. It can teach help them strengthen their core so they can learn to sit on their own, or it can help with sensory issues dealing with the tactile, visual and auditory. Actually touching a horse, feeling it breathe, can help connect a child with special needs to the animal in a unique way while helping them with a variety of conditions or disorders. Brushing a horse or buckling a saddle can help improve fine motor skills in a calming environment, and can elevate a bad mood in no time.

How Animal Therapy Works

Sessions with an animal therapist can take place in a number of settings, as long as it’s comfortable for the child and doesn’t provide any unnecessary stressors. The environment in which animal therapy takes place might need to be modified to accommodate the child’s unique limitations, as well. The therapist will spend some time introducing your child to the animal upon initial contact, letting your child get used to the idea of the animal and learn its behaviors. The pace of the session depends on your child’s level of comfort with the animal and environment, but will eventually increase to meet specified goals.

As your child becomes at ease around the animals, more tasks will be added to help overcome their personal barriers. Because the setting is fun, as the child becomes more focused on the animal and their own interactions learning will become second nature. A number of skills can be improved during animal therapy sessions, and they are not only limited to physical and emotional. Children with ADHD might learn how to focus on specific tasks while keeping the animal calm; children with autism might experience increase spatial awareness and better social skills than with regular therapy alone.

How to Seek Animal Therapy Services

If your child will be starting school for the first time or begin special education services, different forms of therapy will be discussed during the initial meeting for your child’s Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. This is a conference between you, your child’s teachers and school officials, and various specialists who are familiar with your child’s special needs. You will agree upon various terms for treatment and set clear, definable goals that the school will work towards reaching with your child. If you would like animal therapy as an alternative treatment to traditional therapy, let the school know. They can work with you to procure viable services for your child with special needs.

Speak with your child’s current therapists or insurance carriers, as well. Animal therapy is a recognized therapy service; most therapists will know where to direct you for this unique service, and it might even be covered under your child’s insurance plan. No matter why you are seeking animal therapy services for your child with special needs, there is an animal out there just waiting to be loved by your child.

Special Education Resource is working to provide alternative methods of learning for your child through one-on-one tutoring and customizable student sessions. Every child is special and unique in their own way, and we celebrate those differences through specialized learning. There is no right or wrong way to get your child the help they need, so seek to find the services that benefit your child in the way they need the most. Remember, we’re here to help – you’re not alone!

Picture of Luke Dalien

Luke Dalien

Author Luke Dalien has spent his life dedicated to helping others break the chains of normal so that they may live fulfilled lives. When he’s not busy creating books aimed to bring a smile to the faces of children, he and his amazing wife, Suzie, work tirelessly on their joint passion; helping children with special needs reach their excellence. Together, they founded an online tutoring and resource company, Poetry, which had been a personal endeavor of Luke’s for the better part of two decades, was mainly reserved for his beautiful wife, and their two amazing children, Lily and Alex. With several “subtle nudges” from his family, Luke finally decided to share his true passion in creativity with the world through his first children’s book series, “The Adventures Of The Silly Little Beaver."


  1. Kindly help me with my dissertation on animal therapy.. Is it possible to apply this in inclusive education as one innovation?
    MY study is about” The innovation of sped teacher in teaching inclusive education,,,,,,,,” will it be possible to use in for behavioral management?? in school?? I am quite hesitant of bringing pet/ animal in school due to certain laws in animals or pets

    • Nicole… Absolutely, there are many available positions in this field! I’m not sure where you are located, but a quick google search turned up many job postings throughout the United States. Animal Therapy is great not only for children with special needs, but also for elderly folks (in nursing homes) and many children’s hospitals.

  2. my son is 9 years old extreme premature baby he was diagnosed with adhd, high frequency hearing loss glue ear , autism learning needs, complex medical learning needs struggling at school , he hates it and has become resistant to learning.
    id like to get him a friend dog female who can help him , can you advise live in Gravesend kent England.

    • Thank you Abram! We do have many articles regarding different therapy options… Are there specific subjects you are interested in?

  3. hi
    i’m a support worker for children and adults with learning disabilities how do i approach becoming a animal therapist for those in need i’m a horse owner myself and an animal lover
    but also love my job as support would love to combine the both to help those that need it
    any help on this would be great


  4. It’s great to know that the environment where the child receives animal therapy can be tailored to the child’s needs. This could really help improve the success of this kind of therapy! If the child is more comfortable, the animal will be able to provide even greater therapeutic results.

  5. How in fact does a person locate this type of treatment locally. In other words what groups/institutions do you contact? I have a friend with a ADD 13 year old son who might benefit from this type of treatment who lives in the Ft. Worth,Texas area.

  6. Hi there,

    I completed my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies with a minor in education and I am looking to go back to school to obtain a certificate for Animal therapy.

    I currently work in a special needs school, and I was hoping to combine that experience with my love for animals to create a passionate and fulfilling career. If you have any recommendations on programs or schools that have a positive reputation, please let me know!


  7. Hello
    My 19 year old daughter has a Learning Disability. Her only passion in life is animals. She is a keen horse rider but loves her cats and hamster as much.
    I would like to enquire about Animal Therapy and if my daughter could have access to it as she finds any time with animals as a way to relaxe and collect her thoughts.

  8. I have a young person I am working with and shows little empathy towards animals and at times hurts them. I am wondering how best to work with this young person in regards to helping her be kind and empathetic towards animals!
    is this something you can advise me on?

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