For the third week of my fellowship I travelled to Massachusetts to shadow a series of visits with animals to different care facilities, organised by PetPals, The Nature Connection and the Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley. The sheer range of of Animal Assisted Activities on offer can be seen in the table above.
Not surprisingly, each session had a unique style and atmosphere. With each one, I noticed a different impact on the participants, sometimes more related to the experience of watching and handling the animal, other times to the social interaction with another human. I became aware of my personal response to each visit, what I felt was ‘ok’ or ‘not ok’, what I thought was or wasn’t effective. Though I questioned whether these responses were driven by my own bias, there was one thought I kept coming back to; how the quality of attention brought to the session by the facilitator affects the depth of the interaction, not only human to animal, but also human to human.
Regardless of length, species or set-up, the visits that really moved me were the ones were the facilitator was really paying attention to the participants, the animal and the space in-between. In some of the sessions this attention wasn’t quite as focused, or was focused mainly on the animal. I watched a five-minute one-to-one in a resident’s room at a nursing home where the dog was led in, introduced by name, and asked to do a trick. After the trick the resident was invited to pet the dog for a moment, before the team moved on to the next room. The interaction between volunteer and resident was minimal. I was surprised that the volunteer did not even crouch to speak to the resident, who was in a wheelchair, but stayed by the door, speaking from a high-up distance. The relationship appeared to be one of audience and performer. In contrast, I sat in on another session where the volunteer placed herself by the side of the residents, making consistent eye contact, listening intently and allowing the resident to lead the conversation and focus of the session. Sometimes the animals were in the foreground as residents asked questions about behaviour and habits, other times the animals faded into the background as the residents began to tell their own stories. In these moments, there seemed to be a greater connection between facilitator, participant and animal, the relationship appeared to be one of equals enjoying a shared experience together. These moments felt less forced.
I realise this interpretation is a subjective one and neither style of facilitation is right or wrong, but each approach has its own benefits and we must know what these are if we are to identify the appropriate type of AAA for our participants. I tend to be fascinated and excited by AAA that leads to a deeper human connection, yet through this research I have been shown that there is also much to offer from AAA that serves more as light entertainment, a distraction from the everyday. This freedom is both the blessing and the curse of AAA. It provides an opportunity for anyone to do this kind of work, opening up the field for a variety of approaches. It means that some people come into this work through a love of animals, perhaps a love of their own animal, and wanting to share that with others. Other people come into it through a love of humans, and wanting to deepen that connection through being alongside animals and nature.
In a field where there are so many variables, it can be difficult to establish protocol across the board. As an AAA provider, the point is to know exactly what type of intervention we are offering, so we can responsibly train individuals and animals to help us provide this, continuously assess the impact of our work and ensure we are always meeting high standards.
Throughout my Churchill Fellowship I became increasingly aware of how much I was trying to fit in. I wanted to make the most of my time in the States and visit as many individuals and organisations as I could. I certainly did but I started to feel information overload as the weeks passed. It is only now, back in the UK, that I return to my weekly round-up. I will be visiting Israel for Part 2 of my fellowship in October and will produce my final report by the end of 2015.
Post by Ione Maria Rojas