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Communication Sciences and Disorders graduate student Nicole Denman, left, uses flash cards with four-year-old Addisyn Milton to pronounce words for Oliver. Observing in the back are, from left, Aimee Adams, Communication Sciences and Disorders instructor and clinical supervisor, and audiologist Rebecca Davis, associate professor and Oliver's handler.
Rebecca Davis and her trained
golden retriever, Oliver.
“The idea of integrating a dog into speech therapy and in interventions with kids with special needs is not new,” said Rebecca Davis, associate professor and audiologist in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.
She explained that while therapy has made use of service dogs, Oliver is being used in what is called “animal-assisted therapy.” As the Davis family pet, Oliver has had basic dog obedience training and experience with her two children. As his owner, Davis knew his personality and demeanor would make him a good candidate to work with children.
Oliver and Davis are Registered Pet Partners with the Delta Society, an organization that trains and screens volunteers and their pets for visiting programs in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools and other facilities. Delta Society certification requires completion of a course and written test. The handler and animal must also undergo evaluations of the dog’s temperament and how the partners work together in a variety of scenarios.
Oliver also has a certification from the private organization Pawsibilities Unleashed of Kentucky. Davis spent a week there last June undergoing additional training with Oliver where he earned his animal-assisted certification.
Aimee Adams, an instructor and clinical supervisor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, witnessed first-hand how Oliver helped children at the camp.
“Addisyn, one of our children in camp this summer, was working on articulation of specific speech sounds due to a speech sound disorder. She has been in speech therapy a while, so it’s hard for her to stay motivated,” Adams said. “When we introduced Oliver to her, he took a liking to her and she seemed really motivated to play with him.”
Graduate student Nicole Denman of Greensboro, North Carolina, was assigned to work with Addisyn and also saw the positive impact Oliver had on Addisyn’s therapy.
“Working with Oliver enriched my graduate school experience by showing me the advantages of incorporating animal-assisted therapy techniques into clinical settings,” she said. “I’m amazed by the profound affect the mere presence of Oliver had on my client, as well as the other children at the summer speech camp. I witnessed dramatic increases in motivation, compliance, and the number of word productions with Addisyn due to Oliver’s participation in speech therapy.”
Based on Denman’s observations, Addisyn illustrated increased motivation and compliance by using play time with Oliver as a reward. Addisyn was asked to pronounce 20 or more words displayed on articulation cards, and then, as a reward, encouraged to play with Oliver by hiding his tennis ball somewhere in the play therapy room.
“Addisyn seemed to work harder, be more focused and calm in the presence of Oliver,” she said. “Oliver also acted as a great behavioral role model for Addisyn.”
Based upon that experience, Denman said she would gladly recommend animal-assisted therapy to colleagues in her field.
“Clients respond to a variety of different stimuli and approaches. Incorporating many different techniques, including animal-assisted therapy, are often necessary to achieve the results you want with your client,” she said. “These activities can be very effective tools in a speech language pathologist’s bag of tricks.
“This experience has taught me to be a flexible clinician, and to never stop trying different approaches to therapy in order to find what works for my individual client,” Denman added. “I am happy to have been a part of it.”
“Our work with Oliver is really a multi-level project in that we want our students, the children, and our faculty and staff to have a unique experience,” explained Davis. “It will provide everyone involved with an opportunity to participate in research on the outcomes of this type of intervention.”
Davis’ role in this scenario is new to her. Although she is an audiologist, her role in animal-assisted therapy with Oliver is solely as the dog handler.
“It’s a unique experience for me because I can be the handler without getting involved in the therapy provided by the student clinicians,” she said. “My role is to make sure the situation is safe for the children and the dog, and that the clinicians get what they need from me and Oliver.”