WHAT IS ANIMAL-ASSISTED THERAPY?
Animal-assisted therapy is a powerful tool which integrates animal partners into human healthcare, treatment and counseling settings. Animal-assisted therapy is not a separate field of practice, but rather is incorporated into a clinician's existing framework and therapeutic focus. The professional teams involved in the process (human and animal) must meet specific criteria and all interactions must be facilitated by a human healthcare professional who has expertise within the scope of his or her practice. Animal-assisted therapy goals fall into the following areas: psycho-social, emotional, physical, or cognitive. It can be directive (specific activities initiated by clinician) or non-directive (conversational, initiated by client's observations and insights). Animal-assisted therapy is always a collaborative process and the approaches are tailored to fit the specific needs of each client. The client provides his/her consent and is actively engaged in both goal-setting and progress. All interactions are evaluated and documented by the professional.
From a research standpoint, animal-assisted therapy has been shown to be beneficial with a variety of populations. Animal-assisted therapy approaches vary greatly depending on the client and his/her goals for counseling or treatment. For example, a therapy dog can help children who have experienced abuse, neglect or trauma feel safe to open up, provide a welcome outward focus for patients undergoing chemotherapy or other challenging medical treatments, and assist veterans and their families struggling with the after-effects of wartime military service. In the areas of mental health and substance use counseling, including a therapy animal in sessions can be very effective in rapport-building, increasing self-esteem and confidence, addressing relational conflict, exploring grief and loss, and promoting self-care and well-being.
Paws To Connect Counseling provides animal-assisted psychotherapy in accordance with American Counseling Association's Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies: https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/competencies/animal-assisted-therapy-competencies-june-2016.pdf?sfvrsn=14, and Pet Partners' National Standards of Practice for Animal-Assisted Activities and Therapy: www.petpartners.org.
My animal partners and I always work from a teamwork approach; we have been trained and screened to help ensure that ethical standards and best practices are being met in working with clients. As requested as a therapeutic goal, clients also have the opportunity to assist me with the teaching and training of my therapy animal teammates. In addition to being a trained and registered therapy team since 2003, I have also engaged in continuing education and have received animal-assisted psychotherapy intensive training through a variety of programs.
While therapy dogs are most commonly known, many domesticated species (including cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, horses, llamas) can also be very impactful in counseling. I have had the honor of observing the profound connection that individuals have had with a variety of animal species. Therefore, I believe that different types of animals have an equal and powerful place in the healing process with clients. Integrating a therapy dog or therapy rabbit in sessions is an option for clients. We understand that some clients prefer traditional therapy without the incorporation of animals, and that is both respected and welcomed.