Therapy Goats Provide Comfort to Those in Need
What are therapy goats, and what should you know before acquiring or trying to raise them?
Jasir* has developmental delays, and verbal communication is incredibly challenging for him. But thanks to the time he spends with Ivy, a therapy goat from the Philly Goat Project in Philadelphia, he’s learning to say the word seesaw. That’s because he loves to get on a seesaw with Ivy.
At the Philly Goat Project, 14 specially trained goats are used to offer animal-assisted therapy. Karen Krivit, who worked for 30 years as a counselor, co-founded the Philly Goat Project with her daughter Lilly Sage in 2018. Karen says she creates motivational situations for clients like Jasir to help them work up to specific goals, especially around communication.
“I know that Jasir loves to take Ivy on the seesaw with him,” says Karen, whose process began with encouraging Jasir to first use a picture of a seesaw to communicate his desire. “I create a situation where he has to eventually use his words or use the picture to request to get help to get himself and Ivy on the seesaw.”
This process helps Jasir practice his words and build confidence. “He feels safe with the goats,” Karen says. “He chooses Ivy out of all the goats most of the time and now he calls to her when he arrives.”
Karen and Lilly have also seen clients with cerebral palsy become motivated to walk and talk with the goats. “They don't feel judged by them,” Karen says. “It's a good way to practice getting your words out when articulation is a challenge.”
Therapy Goats: The Greatest of All Time?
Along with helping those with special needs, goats can encourage their family members to become better communicators too, Karen says. Spending time with goats provides a great segue for talking about a family’s emotional needs. Karen talks about herd mentality and the ways the animals respond to one another as well as humans. “Initially, we do a lot of teaching about handling the goats, and then midway through our session, we use a lot of reflection and mindfulness to integrate the emotional challenges that a person or family is working on as it relates to their experiences,” she says.
Lainey Morse, founder of the original Goat Yoga, says goats are the perfect therapy animal. “Their characteristics are calm, and so when you are around them it's hard to have anxiety or stress because you seem to take on that energy of calmness,” she says. While dogs and horses, common choices for therapy animals, need time to develop a bond with a human, “goats love all humans as long as those humans are petting them and loving them. They are also very funny and mischievous animals, and so they make you laugh. Laughter is the best medicine.”
Lainey developed the idea for goat yoga—doing yoga in the presence of wandering goats—during the spring of 2016 when she was in need of emotional support herself. “I was just diagnosed with a non-curable disease. I was also going through a divorce, and I would come home every day from my corporate job and just spend time in the barn with my goats,” Lainey says. “They would make me laugh and forget about my pain or sadness.”
The Difference Between Service Animals and Support Animals
While goats (and other animals) can provide unmatched comfort and joy, it’s important not to confuse therapy animals with service animals.
Service animals are regulated under the American Disabilities Act (ADA). Service animals, such as dogs used by those who are vision-impaired, help people perform their daily tasks. A therapy animal, often helpful for people who struggle with communication, depression, or socializing, provides emotional support.
According to a FAQ on service animals provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, emotional support animals, such as therapy goats, “have not been trained to perform a specific job or task” and therefore “do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.” Whereas service animals assist people with disabilities in order to “fully participate in everyday life,” emotional support animals provide comfort simply by being with a person.
State and local government laws vary with regards to emotional support animals, and while they may not be certified under the ADA, some businesses and other facilities that are otherwise kept animal-free do allow in therapy animals to accompany their people.
“Therapy animals are not required to be certified and there are many websites that tout certifying your animals as therapy animals, but it is, for the most part, a sales tool to sell ‘therapy animal tags,’ which are not accredited and are not regulated,” Lainey says.
Thinking About Raising Therapy Goats?
Raising therapy goats takes “lots of love,” Lainey says. “I spend at least 1 to 2 hours in the morning and 2 to 3 hours at night with my goats. They need to be socialized and loved.”
At the Philly Goat Project, goats are treated more like horses than livestock, Karen says. Her goats, which she obtains from nearby breeders after they’ve been weened at around 3 months, are taught to provide therapy to humans by a skilled trainer who used to work with horses and dogs.
Karen’s also very regimented with the goats’ nutrition. They’re fed a healthy diet with regularly timed meals. In addition, she’s careful to avoid giving the goats an excessive number of treats, which can cause the animals to become aggressive. “All cultures want to connect by feeding,” she says. However, she warns that when people randomly feed the goats, they start viewing people as sources of food, which encourages aggressive behavior.
Instead, the goats at Philly Goat Project expect to be walked, pet, and spoken to when they’re around humans. Some have even been trained to recognize their names and do tricks that delight their human friends.
As for the breed, Karen and Lainey agree any goat can be trained to provide emotional support.
For Karen, what’s more important than the breed is to ensure she knows the full history of each goat and is able to predict its behavior. That’s why she acquires her goats from a breeder rather than through a rescue program.
“We use Nigerian dwarf or pygmy goats because of their miniature size, but I think any goat can be a therapy goat,” Lainey says. “I find that my larger breeds like the Boer goats […] are the best therapy animals for me. They have a different character than the mini goats do. They are more focused on getting attention and wanting to be next to you.”
* Jasir’s last name and age have been withheld for privacy.