Exploring Animal-Assisted Therapy for Creating Rich Communicative Environments and Targeting Communication Goals in Subacute Rehabilitation

Martha Sherrill, Julie A. Hengst

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: This study continues our research examining the use of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) for patients with acquired neurogenic communication disorders. AAT pairs an animal/handler team with a licensed therapist during sessions to target discipline-specific goals. Our original study focused on dog/handler teams paired with occupational and physical therapists during inpatient rehabilitation sessions. We documented multiple ways that AAT enriched the communicative environment, increasing the amount, complexity, and voluntariness of patient participation. This study focuses on speech-language pathology sessions, comparing communicative environments during AAT and traditional sessions. We also examined the speech-language pathologists’ (SLPs’) experiences in learning to plan for and target communication goals for patients during AAT sessions. Method: This interpretive design combines ethnographic methods with participatory action research. We recruited 10 patients from an inpatient rehabilitation unit and two SLPs. We video-recorded 20 speech-language pathology sessions (one AAT and one traditional for each patient) and conducted 26 interviews. We consulted with SLPs on how to incorporate AAT into their treatment during their preparation time and used self-report measures to track changes in their planning time and confidence across the 6-week study. Findings: Across participants, AAT sessions provided richer communicative environments than traditional speech-language pathology sessions as measured by participant talk time, mean length of turns, and use of interactional discourse resources such as narrative use and playful language. The SLPs were rapidly able to adapt their clinical practice to incorporate AAT and displayed rapid and marked decreases in their initial planning time and increases in confidence. Conclusion: AAT sessions created meaningful, rich, and complex communicative environments in a clinical space for participants to align with others around a shared interest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)113-132
Number of pages20
JournalAmerican journal of speech-language pathology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Speech and Hearing
  • Otorhinolaryngology
  • Linguistics and Language


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