Rachel pictured above with therapy dog partner Mia, in a counseling session
WHAT IS ANIMAL-ASSISTED THERAPY?
Animal-assisted therapy is a powerful tool which integrates animal partners into human healthcare, treatment and clinical 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. It is very important to note that this is a partnership and must be respected as such - we never “use” our animals in 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(s).
From a research standpoint, animal-assisted therapy has been shown to be beneficial with a variety of populations. Animal-assisted therapy approaches and interventions 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 therapy 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, ensuring that ethical standards and best practices are being met in working with clients. As a therapeutic goal in counseling sessions, clients also have the opportunity to assist me with aspects of training my therapy animal partners.
While therapy dogs are the most commonly known species providing these services, numerous domesticated species (including rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, horses, llamas, cats) can also be very impactful in counseling. I have had the honor of observing the profound connection that individuals can have with a variety of animal species. Therefore, I strongly believe that different types of animals have both an equal and powerful place in the healing process with clients. Integrating a therapy dog or therapy rabbit in sessions is an option for our clients. I understand that some clients prefer traditional therapy without the incorporation of a therapy animal, and that is both respected and welcomed.
A Note On Terminology:
There are many terms in the field which can be very confusing! In addition, some terms are incorrect and dilute the professionalism of the field. Please note that the term “pet therapy” is not only incorrect, but misleading and not accurate. Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) are not therapy but therapeutic by nature. These activities are provided by volunteers (or professionals within their scope of practice) screened and trained with their animal partners to provide ‘visits’ to clients and patients in a variety of settings. Currently, the most accurate terminology includes the ‘umbrella’ term of either Animal-Assisted Interventions or Animal-Assisted Interactions (AAI) which encompasses Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) and Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT). Note: human healthcare professionals may provide both AAA and AAT in sessions with clients and patients; volunteers (non-healthcare professionals) may only provide AAA or be integrated with their animal partner as part of an AAT session with an appropriate healthcare professional facilitating this interaction.