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What is Animal Assisted Psychotherapy?

Andrew takes his German Sheppard mix Max to his therapy practice every day. His clients enjoy petting Max while discussing their concerns. Is Andrew doing Animal Assisted Therapy? Maybe – but maybe not. Read on. We’ll address the question again at the end of the article.

There is a lot of confusion about this term Animal Assisted Therapy. Most people who hear the term react something like this: “Oh, my grandfather had a dog that visited him in the nursing home.” Or, “I have a dog I always thought would make a great therapy dog!” These comments actually refer to common misconceptions of what Animal Assisted Therapy actually is. So here is a brief primer:

The most common type of work with animals helping people is actually done with volunteers and their pets. When volunteers take their pets (usually dogs) to visit people in hospitals, homes for the sick and elderly, schools and other places this is actually considered an Animal Assisted Activity (AAA). You may know someone who goes to a school where a dog comes regularly with their “handler” owner, and students read to them. The dog most often has been trained, and “certified.” Organizations certify animals and their handlers to ensure safety of both the person they are visiting, and their pet. There are numerous organizations that help Certify animals and their volunteer handlers, including Delta Society, Canine Good Citizens, and Human Animal Bond of Colorado (HABC). The key to this distinction is that the service is provided by a volunteer with little to no training in mental health, and the activities are not part of a therapeutic treatment plan. Usually the Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI) these teams provide are very helpful and often healing to the person receiving them; they are enjoyable, calming, fun, etc. but would not be considered therapy.

What we do at AATPC is Animal Assisted Psychotherapy. Animal Assisted Psychotherapy involves a professional working within their scope of training and experience, with an animal. The professional develops specific interventions that assist the client’s treatment goals, and are documented, as any other intervention would be. Our clients usually come to work with one of our therapists at our counseling center where we have many animals that we work with. The individual’s primary goal is to receive counseling or psychotherapy. All of our Counselors and Psychotherapists have received post-graduate training, and often Certifications in Animal Assisted Therapy and/or Psychotherapy that allow them to provide this specialty. As part of the client’s therapy work the animals are carefully integrated into their treatment plan with appropriate interventions whenever possible.

Animal Assisted Psychotherapy can also be provided to other organizations in the community. For example we have contracts at eating disorder units, residential programs and veteran’s homes to bring our dogs and conduct individual, family and group sessions on their site. But the goals continue to be based on the client’s needs – our counselor’s job is to determine how best to integrate the animal into work that would help and motivate the client(s) with their established treatment plan.

Many types of animals can assist in Animal Assisted Psychotherapy. Our agency is at a small ranch, so we work with several types of animals: dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, and goats. All our animals have shown qualities that make them good “therapy animals.” Some of these qualities include:

· Being friendly and open to new people

· Enjoying being petted by strangers

· Calm in lots of different types of environments

· Safe with children and adults (they don’t bite, or knock people down)

Even if our animals have all these qualities, they must still be trained and/or socialized to be able to perform their job. Sometimes this includes being trained by a Professional Trainer, but many of us are qualified to train our own pets to do their jobs. Our dogs have extensive training that goes beyond obedience training. They are safe, reliable, and consistent with our clients. But they also have their unique personalities and little quirks. Most of our therapy animals are rescues and have their own stories that clients can relate to, and some have behavioral issues (like Rupert with ADHD) the clients can identify with and help. Most important – they like their jobs and enjoy coming to work!

Animals help make the process easier for clients and often, more fun. Research has demonstrated the power that animals can have in the emotional and physical healing of people. Integrating our animals into treatment can:

  • help motivate clients to attend counseling

  • lower anxiety, stress and blood pressure

  • teach caring, gentleness & empathy

  • help children to be more open and receptive

  • facilitate rapport with children and teenagers

  • enhance self esteem & development of a positive identity

  • help children with autism develop more pro-social and less autistic behavior

  • help develop attachment related receptivity and reciprocity

  • help develop healthy boundaries

  • reduce loneliness and isolation

  • diminish emotional and physical pain

  • help draw attention outward, thus mitigating anxiety, anger and depression

And these are only a few of the benefits from simple interaction with the animals. More complex interventions can be developed with individuals, couples and families that can help enhance listening, empathy and communication; help individuals with addictions develop greater strengths and resilience to make more healthy decisions; and help teenagers develop a solid positive identify to form the platform from which to choose their future.

Now back to Andrew and Max. Is this Animal Assisted Therapy? Petting a dog in a counseling office certainly has its therapeutic value, but true Animal Assisted Psychotherapy offers much more. If Andrew intentionally integrates Max into the sessions with specific treatment interventions that help his client with his or her treatment goals, then, yes – this is Animal Assisted Therapy. As a burgeoning specialty field within mental health, Animal Assisted Therapy offers myriad new ways to engage, motivate, and treat clients of all ages.

Linda Chassman is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado, a unique counseling center that provides professional level counseling to individuals with the assistance of animals in a therapeutic ranch environment.



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