Using Pets to Meet Occupational Therapy Goals in the Virtual Setting

by Amy Schwab, MS, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist at AIM Academy

In my practice with elementary and middle school students at AIM Academy, a school for students who learn differently, I’m fortunate to be able to incorporate a facility dog, Kelly, into sessions. Kelly is a black lab, poodle, golden retriever mix, trained by Paws and Affection to work with children who have special needs. Kelly helps students work toward their therapy goals by providing a calming presence as well as participating in various activities, including listening to students read, checking the neatness of their handwriting, making sure they’re using the correct fingers for typing, participating in exercises, playing games, and helping students practice mindfulness.

Since Kelly was unable to work directly with students in the virtual environment, I had to adjust the practices in which I would normally include Kelly. To begin, I took notice of resources available in students’ homes and incorporated those items into our sessions. For example, one student had a puzzle cube with animal pictures on it. To address gross motor goals, I asked the student to perform “animal walks” according to which animals came up on the cube. In another example, students identified interesting objects in their rooms, photographed them with their phones, responded to prompts, and edited their work to address writing goals. One student participated in mindful awareness to address his self-regulation goals while walking outside his home. While doing so, he noted pictures in clouds, described items he saw around him, and tuned in to sensations such as temperature, or the changing sensations under his bare feet as he walked across varied outdoor surfaces.

After noting that several students had pets present during sessions, I began to transfer activities performed with AIM’s facility dog to the home environment. Dogs — and even one cat — provided opportunities to practice mindful awareness of sensations, such as the warmth and weight of a pet on the student’s lap, the texture of fur, and counting of a pet’s heartbeat and breath. A student performed exercises with his dog similarly to how he practiced them with Kelly, by maintaining specific positions while petting or giving treats to his dog. A pet dog helped to motivate student performance, as Kelly did at school, just by being present with the student, who pretended that his dog had completed a drawing and participated in a typing lesson.

Learning goals

Use resources available within students’ homes to meet therapeutic goals. Specifically, explore how to transfer work with an on-site facility dog to the home setting using students’ own pets to meet the goals of developing:

  • Core strength to improve postural control

  • Written expression and typing skills

  • Self-regulation of emotion and attention

Keywords

occupational therapy, online learning, mindfulness, social emotional learning, teletherapy

Transition to distance learning

Activities

Face to Face

  • Therapist-led mindfulness practice with Kelly (petting, brushing, finding/counting breath and heartbeat)

  • Core strength exercises:

  • Doing down dog yoga pose with Kelly

  • Racing Kelly on scooter

  • Typing lesson

  • Drawing/writing activity

At a Distance

  • Core strength exercises with dog: yoga cards

  • Pet meditation

  • Student-led mindfulness practice (finding/counting pet’s breath and heartbeat)

  • Typing lesson

  • Drawing activity

Materials

Face to Face

  • Facility dog

  • Exercise/yoga cards

  • Pet mindfulness activity on MyLife app or therapist-led mindfulness activity

  • Website: Typing.com or TypingClub.com

  • Drawing worksheet

  • Pencil and items for coloring

At a Distance

  • Pet or stuffed animal

  • Exercise/yoga cards

  • Pet mindfulness activity on MyLife app or student-led mindfulness activity

  • Website: Typing.com or TypingClub.com

  • Paper, pencil, items for coloring

  • Online step-by-step drawing video or still image

Strategies

Face to Face

  • Core strength exercises:

  • Doing down dog yoga pose with Kelly. Student counts 10 Kelly trips underneath their hips.

  • Racing Kelly on scooter. Student is on belly and propels down the hall using arms and legs while racing Kelly.

  • Typing lesson on Typing.com; dog “checks” to ensure student uses correct fingers

  • Student draws Kelly on card and writes a message to a friend from Kelly; therapist draws lines inside card to help with handwriting legibility

At a Distance

  • Therapist and student log onto Zoom session

  • Therapist and student check in about how week is going

  • Yoga cards: Student holds boat pose, bridge pose, or superman pose while petting dog

  • MyLife app: Pet Meditation—Mindful Breathing: Petting, finding and describing breath

  • Attention to speed and force of breath (hard and slow) and sound of breath (can sometimes hear growling sound when asleep)

  • Student finds dog’s heartbeat and describes speed (slow and steady)

  • Typing lesson on Typing.com: dog “checks” to ensure student uses correct fingers

  • Dog drawing activity; dog helps to “draw” his own portrait, student practiced brainstorming a story about his dog’s favorite activities (taking naps, chasing a ball, eating treats)

  • Student and dog reflect on performance during session

  • Wrap up session with discussion of plans for coming week

What worked well

Student motivation and engagement notably improved with the involvement of a pet dog.

I was surprised by

How calm and cooperative students’ pets were, considering they received no special training.

Next time I’ll try

Providing a general step-by-step guide for drawing a dog to make the drawing activity easier.

My big picture takeaways

It was inspiring to see the connection students had with their pets, and how their willingness to participate in non-preferred activities increased just with their pets’ presence. I plan to continue to incorporate pets during virtual sessions to further explore the positive impacts they have on student motivation and performance.

About the Author

Amy Schwab, MS, OTR/L, has been an occupational therapist at AIM Academy for 10 years, and currently works with both elementary and middle school students. She is one of three handlers for the school’s facility dog, Kelly, who helps children meet their therapy goals.

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