There are so many misconceptions around animal-assisted therapy, that it sometimes gets in the way of people accessing it as clients and training in it as clinicians. As the director of an animal-assisted therapy practice, and a passionate advocate of this type of work, these are the 7 questions and comments I hear most often about AAT.
So, you give therapy to animals?!
A lot of people assume that being an animal-assisted therapist means I spend my days trying to calm anxious kitties, or talk to dogs about their obsessive licking issues. This is not the case. Rather, AAT therapists work with their animals to provide therapy to their human clients who may be dealing with issues ranging from depression and anxiety to complex trauma and neurodevelopmental disorders.
How do they go to the toilet?
Our animal’s well-being is of prime importance to any animal-assisted therapist. We always carry a tote bag of supplies, including; brushes, hand wipes, dog toys, drinking bowls, treats, leads, blankets and a plethora of poop bags for our regular toilet breaks. When I was doing outreach visits, one of the first questions I would ask prospective locations was, “Is there somewhere I can toilet my dog in between sessions?” and if that question didn’t freak them out and they said there was a grassy patch somewhere nearby, I knew we were good to go!
I have a cute/cuddly/gentle dog that I bring to work, that makes me an animal-assisted therapist too.
There’s a big difference between animal-assisted activities, (e.g., volunteers who bring their dogs to visit residents at a nursing home), and animal-assisted therapies. In AAT, the handler is a trained professional with qualifications in psychology, social work or counselling and they work with their dog to deliver a specific intervention that would not be possible without the dog being there. Both AAA and AAT have tremendous value, but just like playing a flight simulator game doesn’t qualify you to fly a plane, owning a dog and bringing them to work, even if they’re well-mannered and polite and popular with your clientele, does not make what you’re doing animal-assisted therapy.
Can’t you just borrow someone else’s dog?
We often get this question when a client is working with someone who isn’t an animal-assisted practitioner (we do have some of those at the clinic!), or if one of the dogs is having a rest day, but no, each handler is only certified to work with their own dog (or dogs).
This is because the real magic of AAT lies in the bond and the trust between the therapist and their animal and how that works in the therapy room. That trust has been built over all of their training and all of their previous sessions together. For example, if a client gets irate during a session, I need to know exactly how my dogs are likely to respond and they need to know that I have the situation in hand. A dog that doesn’t have trust in their human handler is more likely to act in unpredictable and potentially aggressive ways if faced with a non-verbal client having a meltdown, a couple having an argument, or even an overly enthusiastic client hugging them a little too tight.
I have a rescue dog and can’t afford a Labrador/Golden Retriever or Cavoodle, so I can’t be an animal-assisted therapist.
All three of my therapy dogs are rescues and all three of them passed their certification with no issues. If anything, the training that we undertook to become certified as a team together only strengthened the bonding process. In the case of our lovely Jersey girl, I know the training was instrumental in improving her confidence.
It’s a big call to make, but I’m going to say that, as long as your dog; 1) shows an interest in and curiosity for meeting people, and 2) doesn’t have serious aggression issues, then I think any breed of dog, from any type of background can become an animal-assisted therapy dog with the right training.
I think dogs should just be allowed to be dogs, it’s cruel not to let them jump/lick/hump etc
As soon as my dogs are home and their work collars are off, they’re 100% goofy, lovable, cheeky, romping, rolling, licking (and yes, even occasionally humping) dogs. BUT, just like any child figures out what they can get away with at grandma’s versus at home, our dogs learn which behaviours are acceptable at home, but aren’t ok at work. I strongly believe that by teaching our dogs manners and obedience, we’re increasing the numbers and types of environments they’re welcome and able to join us in and actually increasing their capacity for receiving love, attention, enrichment and even good healthcare. For example, one of our dogs had to have an ultrasound that would usually require sedation, but instead, I was able to use our training and the trust she has in me, to ask her to lie down and stay still throughout the procedure. This avoided the risk of an anaesthetic and made the whole process much less stressful for both of us.
Can I pat them?
First off, thank you for asking. It’s always a good idea to ask any dog owner if you can pat their dog before your hand is anywhere near those teeth! But yes, you can absolutely pat a therapy dog, they are not like assistance dogs (e.g., seeing eye dogs or medical alert dogs) that need to stay focused on their specific person and their specific work. Unlike assistance dogs, therapy dogs do not perform ‘life-saving’ services for their handler, and therefore, they can’t go into public places, like shops or restaurants, but they can get pats from everyone!
By Danielle Graber
Clinical Psychologist & Animal-Assisted Therapist
Director 12 Points Psychology
If this has piqued your interest in AAT in general or our clinic in particular, please check out our website or follow us on Instagram or Facebook for regular updates on our therapy animals and our work.
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