Tag Archives: animal assisted therapy

The people whisperers

By Laurie Meyers December 26, 2017

Licensed professional counselor (LPC) Hallie Sheade can’t remember a time when she didn’t love horses. She has been told that her equine passion started when she was 2 and begged to be allowed to ride a carnival pony without her mother holding her hand. Sheade, an American Counseling Association member, has taken riding lessons since she was 5, but it was at age 9 that she first encountered the path that would eventually lead her to specialize in animal-assisted therapy.

One day, a horse named Cowman who had been labeled difficult and stubborn showed up at the barn where Sheade took lessons. True to his reputation, Cowman didn’t get along with the other horses — or with people. But Sheade believed that Cowman was just misunderstood. She could relate. After all, she was feeling misunderstood by her own parents. Sheade began spending hours with Cowman, often grooming the horse as she poured out her troubles to him. A bond formed between them, and Sheade became the only person with whom Cowman would cooperate.

Then something interesting occurred. After months of spending time with Sheade, Cowman started to get along with other horses and to take direction from other people. And Sheade? Her relationship with her parents began to improve. “I felt calmer and more at peace after spending time with Cowman,” Sheade says. “I think it goes back to the fact that horses naturally embody [Carl] Rogers’ core conditions — empathic, nonjudgmental and able to offer unconditional positive regard. Therefore, just being with them can help us to feel more connected and understood, making it easier to tolerate life’s stresses.” She recalls that being the person Cowman chose to respond to also made her feel confident, capable and special.

Sheade’s memory of what she and Cowman shared would grow into a fascination for the human-animal bond and a desire to use that connection to help others who are hurting. Although her story illustrates the potential power of that bond, it does not stand as an example of actual animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Simply bringing your dog to work so that clients can pet it is not the equivalent of AAT, say the specialists interviewed for this article. Counselors — and the animals with which they work — need the proper training for true therapeutic benefits to be realized.

Instinctive helpers

Therapy animals need the right temperament and training to work with people who are experiencing stress and distress, says Cynthia Chandler, director of the Consortium for Animal Assisted Therapy at the University of North Texas. In other words, a skittish and difficult-to-control pet dog is not a therapy animal, no matter how beloved it may be.

Well-trained therapy animals can help counselors establish therapeutic bonds with their clients more quickly and can also alert counselors to emotions that clients may not have expressed yet verbally. However, counselors must be properly trained to read these signals and work effectively with therapy animals, says Chandler, a member of ACA.

“Using AAT requires understanding how animals interact as social beings and what that interaction can contribute to the psychodynamics of a counseling session,” says Chandler, whose book Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling is in its third edition. Counselors using AAT must have an understanding of species-specific behaviors — for example, how particular types of animals signal distress or give support — and an in-depth awareness of their own animals’ personalities.

Possible therapy animals include pocket pets (such as hamsters), rabbits, reptiles, llamas, dolphins and cats, but the most common are dogs and horses. Chandler, co-leader of ACA’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network, believes that dogs and horses make the best therapy animals because they come from family systems and have lived with humans for such a long time. Their natural instinct is to include the counselor and client in their herd or pack, she explains.

Like humans, dogs and horses also seek positive nurturing interactions. “[The desire for nurture] has a physiological basis,” Chandler says. “When we’re engaging in a nurturing touch, it releases oxytocin and endorphins.” When clients reach out to touch a therapy animal, they feel more socially connected, and their stress hormones go down, she explains. “[This] allows clients to feel safer to engage and discuss difficult issues,” says Chandler, who has another book, Animal-Assisted Interventions for Emotional and Mental Health: Conversations With Pioneers of the Field, currently in press.

Horses and dogs are also excellent distress detectors, Chandler says. Both species are extremely good at sensing stress, through smell and body language, and then reflecting that stress is present in an environment, she explains. They communicate this through their body language, such as moving toward an anxious client to soothe the person or moving away when the situation feels overwhelming to them. They also give off other signals to alert counselors to important information, she says. For instance, a horse might prick up its ears or a dog might bark or repeatedly look back and forth between the client and counselor.

Chandler jokes that horses and dogs are existentialists. They don’t like angst, uncertainty or resistance, and their natural inclination is to resolve issues, she explains. Chandler’s former therapy dog, Rusty, a red and white cocker spaniel, was known to walk over to clients who were resistant, put his head on their knees and just stare at them. Typically, Chandler says, tears would start forming in these clients’ eyes within about 30 seconds, and they would then begin to open up. Rusty would indicate his approval — and support — by jumping up into their laps.

Through her personal practice, research and interviewing other animal therapy experts, Chandler has studied the human-animal bond and how it works in therapeutic settings. In the process, she has developed what she calls human-animal relational theory. When humans and social animals come together within the therapeutic setting, she says, a whole series of relational happenings occur, even if a dog is across the room or a horse is across a pasture. “How an animal engages or doesn’t engage will bring out something big in the client,” Chandler says.

Being able to recognize the significance of the therapy animal’s behavior is the job of the counselor, Chandler says. “Hey, Jesse [Chandler’s current therapy dog, also a cocker spaniel] just woke up and jumped up in your lap. Why do you think she did that?” Chandler might ask a client. For Chandler, Jesse’s reaction might hint at resistance on the part of the client. Jesse, like Rusty, doesn’t like it when she senses that clients are holding back and will often jump into their laps and nuzzle them until they talk about what is bothering them. However, the client might assign a different meaning to Jesse’s action. Either way, Chandler marks the moment, and then she and the client process it together.

Risk reduction

Leslie Stewart, whose research focuses on AAT, emphasizes that it is important for counselors to recognize that AAT is a specialized form of counseling — just like play therapy or art therapy — that requires specific knowledge. Because animal behavior is never 100 percent predictable, AAT also carries an increased risk of harm, she acknowledges. But Stewart, who helped write the Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies endorsed by the ACA Governing Council in 2016, believes that in the hands of competent providers, the potential benefits of AAT far outweigh the risks.

Risk reduction begins with informed consent. Counselors should always talk to clients about what they can expect if they decide to use animals in their counseling sessions and caution them about any potential risks, Stewart says. For instance, clients with previously unknown allergies could be at risk of anaphylaxis. Many animals shed, so clients should be prepared to find fur and hair on their clothing. Something as simple as a game of catch could cause accidental injury if a client takes a wrong step and pulls a muscle or breaks a bone.

Then there are the larger risks. “Horses are big and move quickly. When they are scared, they react quickly, and we can’t always stop them,” Stewart cautions. “They also can’t see their feet, so they can’t see our feet.”

And even trained therapy dogs will bite under certain circumstances, Stewart notes. “In cases when animals’ needs aren’t perceived and met, they feel they need to react in ways humans see as aggressive,” she says. Becoming competent in AAT requires counselors to learn to recognize the early signs that an animal needs some space or has had enough and needs to take a break.

Client assessment is also crucial, she says. Stewart, who has counseled survivors of sexual assault and juvenile offenders, doesn’t bring any of her therapy animals with her when assessing clients. Some clients are afraid of or simply don’t want to work with animals, she explains, whereas certain clients — such as those with a history of violent, impulsive behavior — perhaps shouldn’t engage in AAT.

Stewart teaches AAT at Idaho State University, where she is an assistant professor of counseling. She works with three therapy animals: Killer the rabbit, a border collie named Star Sapphire and a German shepherd named Sophie. She emphasizes that knowing an individual animal’s personality is just as important as knowing species behavior.

“Sophie is a big gentle dog, typical of her breed, sort of no-nonsense, friendly and enjoys getting human attention,” Stewart says. “She’s not a lap dog and is not going to be all over you, whereas Star Sapphire is going to be all over you.” The dogs show affection differently, and Stewart highlights the contrast to help students recognize that clients also express needs differently.

Students learn what it means to be affectionate with Sophie. When she curls up four feet away, she’s showing affection. Stewart also asks them to figure out how to communicate affection to Star, even when they might prefer that Star not be all over them. Stewart also has the students use positive reinforcment-based obedience techniques to teach Star something new, such as sitting in a chair in class. By teaching Star, students are learning how to better communicate and deal with frustration when working with clients, she says.

Stewart also provides education about how certain species view the world and what does and does not make a particular type of animal comfortable. “For example, a lot of humans want to hug dogs, but most dogs don’t like being hugged. It stresses them out,” she says. Students are tasked with redirecting a client’s need to show affection into an action that will not cause the therapy animal stress. For instance, Sophie likes to put her head on someone’s knee and get her ears scratched.

Stewart also brings Killer to class. Rabbits’ actions are more subtle and require close attention — which also happens to be a necessary skill for counselors when working with human clients.

Talking horses

As part of her path to specializing in AAT, Sheade studied with Chandler while getting her doctorate at the University of North Texas. She developed two models of equine-assisted therapy: equine-assisted play therapy and equine relational therapy. She now runs Equine Connection Counseling, a private practice that specializes in equine therapy.

Sheade uses equine therapy with both children and adults. Equine Connection Counseling’s partner, Wings of Hope Equitherapy — an accredited therapeutic horseback riding facility — provides the space and horses. The therapy takes place primarily on the ground through interaction with the horses rather than on horseback.

With children ages 3 to 9, Sheade uses equine-assisted play therapy, which incorporates horses into child-centered play therapy. Sessions are one-on-one in a play area that contains various toys and multiple miniature horses, which are slightly bigger than a very large dog. Sheade lets the child choose how (or whether) to interact with the horses. Many children want to immediately engage with the horses, while other children prefer to start with toy horses, she says. The children are allowed to groom the horses with brushes that Sheade provides or they can integrate the horses into play using various toys. For example, children might use the medical kit to give the horses a “checkup” or dress the horses up by putting a lei or boa around their necks or balancing a hat on their heads.

Some children don’t interact with the miniature horses at all, choosing merely to play with the toys on their own. However, Sheade says the parents of those children often report that the horses are all their children talk about afterward.

The horses serve as potent change agents, Sheade says. “They [clients] want the horse to want to be around them,” she says. Horses do not like chaos, however. It isn’t uncommon for children to run up and greet the horses, but if a child is emotionally dysregulated — for example, displaying behaviors such as defiance and opposition, uncontrolled energy or excitement — the horses will react in ways that do not communicate to the child “let’s play,” Sheade says. One horse might run off to the other side of the arena, whereas others might stand in place but show no interest in interacting, she explains. This is the horses’ way of giving feedback, but it is less threatening to a child coming from an animal than it is coming from a grown person, Sheade says.

For example, one of Sheade’s clients was a young girl who was oppositional and defiant. She would approach the horses and get very frustrated when she couldn’t get them to do what she wanted them to do. Sheade helped her become aware that her actions, such as rushing up to the horses in a demanding and impatient manner, were actually driving the horses away.

Children with social difficulties sometimes find that the horses don’t want to interact with them. When this happens, Sheade has them examine how they approached the horses. Was it in a physically threatening way? Did they speak in an angry tone of voice? As the children learn how to interact with the horses, they can take what they are learning and apply it to other relationships in their lives, Sheade says.

The horses also offer emotional support. For instance, if a child is playing alone in the sandbox because he or she is sad or upset, one or more of the horses tends to gravitate toward the child to give comfort through their presence, Sheade says.

Sheade also works with adults, particularly military veterans and others with posttraumatic stress disorder or other trauma. These sessions, using the equine relational therapy model, are also one-on-one and take place mainly on the ground with a herd of horses. Clients choose which horse they want to work with and usually stay with that horse throughout the therapeutic relationship. By inviting clients to pick a horse and have it be “theirs,” Sheade says she is encouraging a bond based on the therapeutic relationship.

Although the primary bond is between the client and the chosen horse, the herd still participates, Sheade says. When clients are distressed, it isn’t only “their” horse that typically reacts. Often, the whole herd will gather.

The sessions are usually a mix of activities and talking, Sheade explains. As clients speak, Sheade is watching the horses’ reactions. This can tell her more about how clients are feeling and often gives her an avenue to broach uncomfortable topics. For example, sometimes when veterans are talking about trauma, their horse might signal the herd to leave. Sheade then asks clients what they think prompted the retreat. Usually, the answer is that the clients’ anxiety was building because they were struggling with a topic they didn’t want to talk about but knew they needed to address.

With equine-assisted counseling, clients don’t necessarily have to talk specifically about what is troubling them, because interpersonal challenges are revealed in the way the horse and client interact, Sheade says. For instance, someone who is a survivor of sexual violence might not know how to assert themselves and say “no” to a horse. Or new clients might think that when the horses walk away from them, it is automatically an indication that they dislike the person.

“What we’re targeting … is [the clients’] thoughts and feelings in the moment — what they believe about themselves or the horses,” Sheade says.

Working with trauma

LPC Shawna Corley’s therapy dog, Rylie, a Great Pyrenees-golden retriever mix, plays a vital role in establishing a sense of safety and trust with Corley’s clients, most of whom are trauma survivors. Children, in particular, find it easier to “talk” to Rylie, Corley says.

One client, a 7-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by a relative, kept insisting that she was fine, even though she had been experiencing flashbacks. Corley, who doesn’t include Rylie in her intakes, gradually began bringing her into sessions with the girl. Once the client established a bond with Rylie, the girl could tell her anything she wanted, just like she was talking to a friend. Corley, who presented a session on incorporating therapy animals into counseling at the 2016 ACA Conference & Expo in Montréal, would sit apart from the client and Rylie, but close enough to hear.

The child would audibly whisper into Rylie’s ear that she felt bad or sad. Corley, a private practitioner in San Antonio, would then ask the girl for permission to speak to Rylie. After “listening” to Rylie, Corley would say something like, “Rylie tells me that you have been feeling sad. Can you tell me about that?” Relaying the conversation through Rylie helped the girl begin to talk to Corley about her trauma.

Rylie has other ways of telling Corley about what a client is feeling. If Rylie perceives a lot of sadness and stress, she will lie on Corley’s feet. To communicate the presence of anger or frustration, she sits on Corley’s feet. Rylie’s physical signals — natural behaviors that Corley reinforced through training — can be especially helpful for adult trauma survivors who have difficulty recognizing and labeling their own emotions. When clients are talking about their trauma, Rylie can let Corley know that clients are becoming upset before their distress triggers a traumatic reaction.

Rylie also sometimes gently urges clients to talk. If clients sit in session for an extended period of time without talking, Rylie often will go over and push their knees with her paw. She will keep doing this until they say something, Corley says.

Because Corley sees clients who are experiencing physical abuse or engaging in self-harm, Rylie is trained to spot injuries such as superficial cuts and bruises underneath clothing. Rylie will then alert Corley, using her nose to pinpoint an area with injuries. Rylie will keep coming back to the area until Corley acknowledges the signal. Rylie’s information provides Corley an opportunity — either immediately or in the future — to initiate a conversation about the injuries.

Rylie also strives to provide a sense of safety, according to Corley. If clients are feeling vulnerable, Rylie will move toward them to physically surround them in a protective manner. She will also protect them by accompanying them to the door when it is time to go.

Safety and training

It is crucial for counselors who are interested in AAT to understand how proper training protects both their clients and the therapy animals themselves, Chandler says. She and Stewart emphasize the importance of recognizing signs of stress in a therapy animal and realizing when an animal doesn’t want or isn’t able to work.

“An animal with the right temperament and attitude can handle counseling quite well,” Chandler says. However, absorbing all the stress and pain that is part of the therapeutic process wears them out, she says. “Jesse only sees a few clients a day [and] not every day,” she says. “Sometimes therapists have more than one dog or horse so they can rotate.”

Although programs that grant certificates for AAT — such as the one at Idaho State — are becoming more common, it can still be difficult to find training, Stewart acknowledges. Courses are available online, but she says that those alone are not sufficient; counselors must do formal coursework. She recommends that counselors who are having trouble finding appropriate coursework contact ACA’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network (see “Additional resources” sidebar, below).

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Competencies (counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies)

  • Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies

ACA Interest Networks (counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks)

  • ACA Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  •  “Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling” by Leslie Stewart & Catherine Y. Chang

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Journal articles (counseling.org/publications/counseling-journals)

  • “Therapy Dogs on Campus: A Counseling Outreach Activity for College Students Preparing for Final Exams” by Sandra B. Barker, Randolph T. Barker & Christine M. Schubert, Journal of College Counseling, October 2017

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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The Counseling Connoisseur: Nature-informed counseling for children

By Cheryl Fisher October 13, 2016

“Once there was a tree … and she loved a little boy” — from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

 

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I recently returned from a wonderful week in Nova Scotia featuring painted clapboard cottages against blue skies and a seascape of majestic hills and swirling tides. With a history rich in forts, fur trades and complex propriety, Nova Scotia also affords miles of pristine trails for the avid (and not so avid) hiker.

On one such hike, I ventured up Cape Split, which offered a spectacular view of the Bay of Fundy following a two-hour uphill jaunt. The inland path was lush with evergreen and paved in centuries-old rocks. Snarled roots from ancient maples protruded from the narrow trail, and patches of mud provided slippery terrain. At times the trail seemed endless and unforgiving. However, just at that moment when body and morale were failing, the forest opened to a grassy knoll that blanketed the age-old rock formation overlooking the (now) returning six-foot tides of the Bay of Fundy.

Damp with perspiration from navigating the trail, we sat down and unloaded our backpacks, laying out a feast before us of lobster rolls and blueberry lemonade. The cool breeze from the bay mingled with the warmth from the sun. In that moment, I was sure there was nothing sweeter than communion with nature and the physical and emotional exertion and spiritual nourishment it afforded.

 

Camps and communion

For many children (and their excited parents), the end of summer signifies a return to school, studies and schedules. It is a time when we bid farewell to the lackadaisical whimsy of carefree days. Summer memories of camps, cookouts and canoes fade, making way for the cooler activities of autumn. However, for many children, summer camp did not include nature hikes, bonfires or kayaking; it involved indoor activities centered around a theme such as weight management, music acquisition or computer skills.

photo-1447875372440-4037e6fae95dResearch suggests that connecting to nature can result in reduced stress, increased energy, improved sleep, reduction of chronic pain, and accelerated healing from injuries and surgery. In particular, Peter Kahn and Stephen Kellert have argued that “a child’s experience of nature exerts a crucial and irreplaceable effect on physical, cognitive and emotional development.”

Yet modern living has insulated us from the positive ionic exchange between grass, trees, river and sky, resulting in a physical, psychological and often spiritual connection from the Earth and her creatures. According to researcher and therapist Martin Jordan in his book Nature and Therapy: Understanding Counselling and Psychotherapy in Outdoor Spaces, this detachment is associated with a variety of dis-ease, including epidemic rates of obesity and depression.

Richard Louv, author and founder of the Children & Nature Network, coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods to refer to a generation of children who no longer spend time outdoors hiking, camping and otherwise interacting with the natural world. Direct contact with nature appears to benefit children physically, emotionally and spiritually.

 

Physical

Interacting with natural elements provides a varied and complex terrain and physical stimulation for children. Negotiating inclining hills or slippery declines, catching and releasing tadpoles or crickets, and chasing butterflies, for example, create opportunities for skill-building in a variety of areas, including large and fine motor skills, balance and hand-eye coordination. Most people can remember the challenge of a new skill … and the thrill of successful mastery.

 

Emotional and cognitive

According to Kahn and Kellert, a child’s experience of nature “encompasses a wide variety of emotions” and an “unfailing source of stimulation.” I remember the awe and wonder I experienced when my childhood naturalist neighbors taught me how to look for the tiny green caterpillars grazing on the cabbage leaves in the garden; then observing their transformation as they ate their way to chrysalises; and the unbearable waiting and waiting until these dormant creatures emerged into beautiful white butterflies.

More recently, I ventured into raising the threatened monarch butterfly. Still with the curiosity of a child, I planted my milkweed, purchased my microscopic caterpillars and watched in amazement as larvae transformed into J’s hanging from the top of my butterfly shelter. Sadly, a virus attacked my precious guests and killed each before they could take their first flight. I experienced genuine grief over this loss.

 

Moral

Nature provides endless teaching opportunities around issues of moral conscience. Kellert identified nine values of the natural world:

  • Aesthetic: Physically appealing
  • Dominionistic: Mastery or control over nature
  • Humanistic: Emotional bonding with nature
  • Moralistic: Ethical or spiritual connection to nature
  • Naturalistic: Exploration of nature
  • Negativistic: Fear and aversion of nature
  • Scientific: Knowledge and understanding of nature
  • Symbolic: Nature as a source of language and imagination
  • Utilitarian: Nature as a source of material and physical reward These values tend to emerge in a developmental manner, generally shifting from more self-centered, egotistical values to more social and other-centered values.

 

Nature-informed counseling

Nature-informed counseling refers to a vast array of scientifically based psychological therapies that use nature in clinical practice. Among the foundational assumptions of nature-informed counseling are that we are not machines; we are human beings who are sensual, curious and creative. We are interdependent with the full ecosystem in which we reside.

Furthermore, ecotherapy is an organic model of care that tends to the whole relationship between humans and the other-than-human. Here are several ways to incorporate nature-informed methods into your counseling practice:

1) Animal-assisted therapy: I am fortunate to be able to bring my goldendoodles to my office to be co-therapists. However, in addition to dogs, there are other smaller pets that may work more easily in your practice. For example, I had a betta fish (who was named Olive by a client) that I used with clients. Or place a bird feeder outside your window (if you are fortunate enough to have a window).

2) Horticulture therapy: There are numerous ways to integrate plants in a therapeutic manner. Have clients plant seeds and tend to their care. Or keep small pots of herbs in your office, providing an opportunity to explore aromatherapy. It is a wonderful release to pinch off a bit of rosemary, mint or thyme and inhale the calming, soothing or energizing fragrance.

3) Wilderness therapy: I have used “kayak therapy” with trauma survivors with great success. However, you may not work in a community with easy water access or even know how to kayak. Therefore, your wilderness approach might be more in line with taking clients on a walk on a trail or observing wildlife with them in a nearby lake or pond.

You can also co-create homework around nature walks. For example, I was working with a couple who seemed stuck, so I asked them to go for a walk together (without talking) and collect items along the way that reminded them of their marriage. When they returned to my office, they emptied their treasures, which included a rock (“that used to be how I saw our marriage”), a feather (“we are drifting away”) and a few twigs (“we have roots still”). After a discussion centered around the items gathered, I had the couple finish the session by using the items to create a sculpture that reflected the relationship they wanted to craft.

4) Other ideas:

  • Assess your clients’ relationship with nature. Where is their “happy place”? How often does they get to visit it? Where are their favorite memories housed?
  • Invite a family with which you are working to spend the night in a tent in the backyard and reflect on this experience in session.
  • Teach cloud spotting. Teaching clients mindfulness takes on a fun twist as you lie on your back and gaze at the ever-changing cloud formations.
  • Use transitional objects. I keep a box in my office filled with seashells, sea glass and rocks lovingly collected by my own mother when she walks the beach. I use these as transitional objects when clients might benefit from imprinting an image or experience to an object that they can carry in their pockets or purses throughout the day.

 

Ethical consideration

As with all forms of practice, ethical standards must be followed to avoid harm and litigation. So what are the ethical considerations when utilizing the wisdom of nature in psychotherapy? This depends on the extent and type of nature-informed therapy you are using. For example, the ethical guidelines for hiking a trail with a client may look a bit different than the guidelines forphoto-1469440317162-d9798b137445 planting a sunflower seed and tending to it as metaphor for self-care and growth. However, in general the following issues must be addressed.

1) Do all parties feel physically and emotionally safe? Although you may thrive sitting in a field of poppies, your client may possess strong allergies to flower pollen that render therapy outdoors a physically uncomfortable experience. In addition to allergies, the client may exhibit phobias around the outdoors that need to be understood and appeased. Temperature and air quality may also be variables to consider.

2) Framing the relationship. For some therapists and clients, an office space with a designated chair arrangement signifies a professional relationship and the tasks that will ensue. A client may feel uncomfortable with the more lax and familiar atmosphere of sitting cross-legged on a hollow log while disclosing current therapeutic issues. Trading leather chair for log stump may alter the relationship in ways that prove unsettling for either the client or the therapist.

3) Is it confidentiality compliant? I have clients who love taking a walk during therapy. Some lament that it is the only time they have for physical activity. However, if we are walking in a heavily populated area, their confidentiality may be at risk. At the same time, an area that is too isolated may not be prudent should an emergency situation arise.

4) Get appropriate training. If you do not know how to kayak, taking clients on a wilderness kayak expedition probably isn’t wise. Always get training before using any modality in therapy.

5) Informed consent. It is always prudent to have clients sign an informed consent form that stipulates the possible risks and benefits of any therapy used in session. Therefore, a specific consent form that addresses the specific type of nature-informed therapy — including possible benefits and risks — needs to be explained and signed prior to taking that walk in the woods or a stroll in the garden during session.

 

Conclusion

Nature provides endless opportunities for metaphors, messages and meaning construction. Incorporating nature-informed approaches into our practices is not only creative but also clinically sound. It is as easy as taking the time to reflect on the sights, sounds, and smells just outside the door.

 

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For more information:

  • Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist (2009)
  • Nature and Therapy: Understanding Counselling and Psychotherapy in Outdoor Spaces by Martin Jordan (2014)
  • Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural and Evolutionary Investigations by Peter H. Kahn and Stephen R. Kellert (2002)
  • Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (2008)

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically-Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.

 

 

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.
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ACA endorses animal-assisted therapy competencies

By Bethany Bray August 15, 2016

Animal-assisted therapy involves much more than helping professionals bringing a pet to work with them or having an “office mascot,” says Amy Johnson, a contributor to the new Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies. The competencies were developed in collaboration with the American Counseling Association’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network.

“We’re seeing teachers and practitioners bringing animals into sessions and classrooms without training [in animal-assisted therapy],” says Johnson, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who directs the animal-assisted therapy certificate program at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. “From a client’s, animal’s and practitioner’s standpoint, there’s a high risk of a negative experience. In order for it to work, there need to be a set of standards and competencies – tenets to follow.”

The new animal-assisted therapy (AAT) competencies, which were endorsed by ACA’s Governing Council and released this spring, were developed to establish best practices for counselors who use animals in therapy. The co-authors also hope that the document helps spread the message that AAT is an intentional technique that involves another being with needs and sensitivities, says Johnson.

“It seems like enthusiasm about the human-animal bond has been steadily growing, and that’s wonderful. But at the same time, there’s a lack of awareness that this is a specialty area within counseling that requires training and knowledge beyond [a counselor’s graduate course work],” says Leslie Stewart, an LPC and assistant professor of counseling at Idaho State University who photo-1455287278107-115faab3eafais a co-author of the AAT competencies. “There is an increased risk of harm for the client and the animal; there are specialized approaches that a handler needs to take with the animal interaction in the therapeutic interaction.”

Practitioners who teach AAT often use a triangle model to show the connection between a counselor, the client and the AAT animal, explains Johnson. Each side of the triangle is an equal length, which means it needs equal weight and consideration. Being mindful of all three components is critical, she says.

“These [AAT animals] are living, sentient beings, not just a tool. … Sure, your dog is great, but can it see eight clients per day?” says Johnson.

Stewart and Johnson agree that interest in AAT has been growing steadily in recent years, not only among counselors but among other helping professions such as social work. As therapy animals are used in disaster relief, on college campuses and in other settings, AAT is receiving more media attention. With interest growing, there has also been an increase in training programs and sessions on AAT at professional conferences, Stewart says.

When done intentionally and correctly, AAT can be a useful tool for all types of counselors across a spectrum of settings, from classrooms with young children to older adults or veterans recovering from trauma, Stewart says. AAT can involve a variety of animals, from dogs and cats to rabbits, guinea pigs and horses.

AAT can be combined with other forms of traditional therapy such as cognitive behavior therapy. The animal can help clients to feel more comfortable in session or serve as an outlet with which clients can practice social or communication skills.

Or the animal can be used to illustrate a concept or lesson. For example, a school counselor or practitioner who works with young children might use a hermit crab to focus on the concept of moving, Johnson explains. Talking about the crab’s move from one shell to another might encourage a young client to talk through his or her own moving experience.

“One of the strengths of the [AAT] intervention is that when it’s practiced by a competent provider, it’s extremely flexible in its application,” Stewart says. “It can be tailored and adapted to meet the needs of counselors and their populations.”

The new AAT competencies were born out of ACA’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network. The group, of which Johnson and Stewart are both members, had been talking about the need for a set of AAT competencies for several years, they say. The competencies ultimately came to fruition when Stewart took them on as part of her doctoral dissertation at Georgia State University.

After Stewart completed the competencies – and her dissertation – in 2014, the AAT interest network submitted the competencies to ACA. After a brief review and revision process, the association’s Governing Council gave its final approval of the document at ACA’s 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal this past March.

The document became ACA’s eighth set of professional competencies that are posted online and available to the public.

Stewart and Johnson hope the competencies are used by practitioners and graduate students interested in learning more about AAT, and by counselor educators, who can distribute the competencies as a resource for students.

The competencies also lay a foundation for other professions to develop AAT competencies “so that everybody’s practicing with the same intentionality,” Johnson says.

“I’m so excited and honored that ACA is recognizing not only the efficacy [of AAT], but the specialization involved,” Stewart says. “I hope that counselors and educators who are interested in this will take the time to recognize that, yes, your enthusiasm is warranted, but [AAT] is a skill that involves knowledge [and] a living being. … Stop and think for a few minutes: Everything we do, every decision we make as counselors, whether we’re working with an animal or not, communicates something to a client. What do you want to communicate to your client? If you’re not attending to an [AAT] animal’s welfare, what is that communicating to your client?”

 

 

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The American Counseling Association’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies are available at counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies

 

Counselors: Interested in joining ACA’s animal-assisted therapy interest network? The group of more than 300 practitioners exchanges ideas through a Facebook page and the ACA Connect listserv and has a get-together every year at ACA’s annual conference.

Find out more at counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks

 

Interested in learning more about emotional support animals and how they differ from animal-assisted therapy? See Counseling Today’s article “Confirming the benefits of emotional support animals

 

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Confirming the benefits of emotional support animals

By Cynthia K. Chandler April 20, 2015

Have you received a telephone call of the following nature? “Can you certify my pet to be an emotional support animal?”

If you are a professional counselor, then the likelihood of you receiving such a request is on the rise. This is because word is spreading that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development dog_1(HUD) recognizes the benefits of emotional support animals and provides regulations allowing them to live with an owner in designated nonpet housing (with a few exceptions) without requiring a pet deposit fee.

Exercising this right does not require that an animal be certified. What it does require is documentation that an individual has a legitimate need for an emotional support animal. The responsibility of providing this documentation lies with professional counselors and other mental health or health providers. In 2008, HUD stipulated that “persons who are seeking a reasonable accommodation for an emotional support animal may be required to provide documentation from a physician, psychiatrist, social worker or other mental health professional that the animal provides support that alleviates at least one of the identified symptoms or effects of the existing disability.”

 

Documentation and other considerations

A counselor who chooses to provide such documentation must do so in letter format on the counselor’s letterhead. The documentation should state that:

1) The named individual is under the counselor’s care

2) The individual has an emotional or psychiatric disability

3) The counselor recommends the individual have an emotional support animal to assist with the disability

The letter is provided directly to the individual who wants to have an emotional support animal live in the home. The individual can then choose with whom to share the letter.

In the documentation, the counselor does not label, define or describe the particular disability of the client. Rather, the counselor must state in general terms that the client has an emotional or psychiatric disability and that an emotional support animal can alleviate one or more of the symptoms or effects of the disability. Individuals need only provide proper documentation to a landlord to have a pet live with them as an emotional support animal in housing typically designated as excluding pets. The judicial system has interpreted this right to fair housing to additionally extend to individuals who wish to have emotional support animals live with them in college or university housing facilities, such as residence halls, dormitories or university-owned apartments.

The responsibility of providing documentation that would allow individuals to have an emotional support animal live with them should not be taken lightly. Based on the accompanying symptoms of a client’s emotional or psychiatric disability, a professional must determine whether living and engaging with an emotional support animal in the home might provide the client with some relief from the disability. To make this determination, it may be useful to have some understanding of how an animal may alleviate symptoms or effects of an emotional disability. Fortunately, there is research that provides guidance in this area.

In my 2012 book, Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling, I reviewed several research studies on the psychophysiological and psychosocial benefits of positive social interaction with a pet, such as holding or stroking an animal. These benefits include calming and relaxing, lowering anxiety, alleviating loneliness, enhancing social engagement and interaction, normalizing heart rate and blood pressure, reducing pain, reducing stress, reducing depression and increasing pleasure. Based on the results of these studies, it is plausible that living with an emotional support animal may alleviate symptoms associated with a number of emotional and psychiatric disabilities. HUD states, “Emotional support animals by their very nature, and without training, may relieve depression and anxiety, and/or help reduce stress-induced pain in persons with certain medical conditions affected by stress.”

Another factor to consider in recommending that a client have an emotional support animal is whether the client has the ability and desire to properly care for an animal. Although human-animal interaction is known to assist people with developmental, emotional, social and behavioral disorders, it is important to assess whether any impairment is so severe that an animal would be neglected or harmed.

Dogs are the most common species to serve in the role of emotional support animals, but Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and HUD’s Fair Housing Act (FHAct) do not designate species restrictions for this role: “While dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other animals can also be assistance animals.”

 

Emotional support animals vs. service animals

HUD legislation uses the broad term “assistance animals,” which is inclusive of both service animals and emotional support animals, when addressing the right to fair housing for individuals with these animals. In contrast, the fair housing rights and rights of access to other facilities included in the Americans with Disabilities Act addresses service animals only. To be clear, an emotional support animal is not the same as a service animal or a psychiatric service animal. Thus, emotional support animals do not have the same federal rights of access to facilities as do service animals. HUD provides the only current federal legislation that covers rights regarding emotional support animals, and this legislation is specific to allowing individuals to have animals live with them as emotional support in designated nonpet housing without financial penalty.

In 2013, HUD clarified that an emotional support animal is not merely a pet: “An assistance animal is not a pet. It is an animal that works, provides assistance or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person’s disability.” However, HUD also stipulated that emotional support animals “do not need training to ameliorate the effects of a person’s mental and emotional disabilities.” Furthermore, “For purposes of reasonable accommodation requests, neither the FHAct nor Section 504 requires an assistance animal to be individually trained or certified.”

There are no qualification requirements for determining whether a specific pet is appropriate to serve as an emotional support animal. So, by default, an emotional support animal is basically a person’s pet that lives with that person and provides emotional support. HUD does stipulate that housing providers are not required to provide accommodations if an animal is destructive, poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others or interferes with the ability of a facility to perform its intended purpose. So, in practice, most people with proper documentation can have a pet live with them and serve in the role of emotional support animal as long as the animal is not destructive, disruptive or dangerous.

 

Recommendations

Because federal law does not require emotional support animals to be trained or certified, the potential exists for some of these animals to be unpredictable and cause harm. Until there is greater oversight regarding emotional support animals, I recommend that counselors avoid a chain of liability and not name a specific pet to serve as an emotional support animal. When providing documentation, refer only to the benefit of the individual having an emotional support animal, but do not name a specific animal. The decision concerning the specific pet to be designated as an emotional support animal should be made by the individual owner of the pet. It is not the responsibility of the counselor or other mental health provider to sanction the appropriateness of a particular pet to serve as an emotional support animal. That is not to say that counselors should avoid assisting individuals in the decision-making process regarding emotional support animals.

For instance, counselors can recommend that clients have their pets evaluated by a qualified evaluator before designating the pets to serve as emotional support animals. A standardized evaluation can often determine if an animal possesses the appropriate stamina and temperament to serve in this role.

Evaluation is important for health and safety reasons. Some animals may find the role of emotional support animal to be too stressful, and the emotional and physical health of the pet will be damaged. We must not overlook the welfare of the animals when considering whether they might provide emotional support for individuals with emotional and psychiatric disabilities. In addition, some pets can respond to stress with overprotective tendencies and aggression, putting members of the public at risk.

Many individuals desire to have their emotional support animals accompany them to pet-restricted facilities outside the home. Many businesses and institutions today are wrestling with how to make this happen while still maintaining the safety of those who may come in contact with these animals. It is my opinion, as a very experienced handler and animal team evaluator, that if individuals were to have their pets’ temperament evaluated by a qualified evaluator, both initially and periodically (say every two years), and provide current documentation that the animal had passed a standardized temperament evaluation, then they might be granted permission by a business or institution on a case-by-case basis to have their emotional support animal accompany them to places where pets are typically not allowed.

 

Animal temperament evaluations

Animal temperament evaluations assess the animal’s social attitude and behavior toward both people and a neutral test dog. In addition, the evaluation assesses the animal’s ability to walk politely on a leash, interact with a small crowd of people and respond to a variety of basic obedience commands by its handler. Failing a temperament evaluation would not interfere with the right of an individual to have the pet live in the home in the role of emotional support animal. Federal law protects this right. Qualified animal temperament evaluators can be found through national organizations such as the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program and the national Pet Partners program.

The AKC website (akc.org/dog-owners/training/canine-good-citizen/) provides information about the CGC evaluation, which is best suited for the simple purpose of determining if a pet is well-behaved enough to be around the general public. However, it is designed solely to evaluate the temperament of dogs, not other species. The CGC evaluation is relatively inexpensive, takes about 30 minutes to complete and requires the handler to take the dog through a series of basic obedience commands. Local CGC evaluators can be found at many large pet stores that offer dog training for handlers or at community obedience training clubs. The Pet Partners organization offers evaluations for a number of different domestic animal species, but the investment in cost and effort is higher. This is because the intended purpose is to register Pet Partners teams that can provide services to the public as handler and therapy animal (note that a therapy animal is not the same as an emotional support animal). The Pet Partners registration requires a rigorous handler-team evaluation — for temperament, skills and aptitude — and requires the handler to complete a training that is available online or through an eight-hour, in-person workshop. The training includes learning about risk management and infection control procedures that are valuable to follow when a pet is engaging with the public. The Pet Partners website (petpartners.org) provides information on training and finding a local evaluator.

The animal temperament evaluation procedure may resolve a prominent ethical dilemma. If an emotional support animal can alleviate or assist with a person’s emotional or psychiatric disability at home, why shouldn’t the animal be allowed to serve this purpose outside of the home as well, such as in the classroom or a work environment? At the same time, because no oversight exists regarding behavioral requirements for emotional support animals, how do businesses and institutions protect the public from danger posed by a potentially unruly animal? Because there is no federal regulation that requires facilities other than housing to allow the presence of emotional support animals, then businesses and institutions can establish their own policies around this issue.

Requiring a standardized animal temperament evaluation may be a reasonable solution to thisDog_2 ethical quandary. The business or institution could provide a letter of access, for a designated period of time, to an individual accompanied by an emotional support animal if that person provides the institution with:

1) Official documentation from a professional counselor, or other mental health or health provider, designating the need for an emotional support animal (this could be the same documentation used for federal housing rights)

2) Proof that the animal passed a recently administered standardized temperament evaluation from a reputable source such as AKC or Pet Partners (the evaluation should have been completed within the past two years because appropriate animal temperament can deteriorate over time)

 

Advocacy

Perhaps the greatest source of confusion today is around the concept of emotional support animals. The general public may not be aware that emotional support animals are not the same as psychiatric service animals and therefore do not have all of the same federal rights to access facilities. Many people are unaware that current federal law does not require emotional support animals to be trained or evaluated. Thus, some emotional support animals with inappropriate temperament may pose a risk to the general public. Generally, the public does not realize that most emotional support animals are essentially a person’s pet serving in the role of emotional support.

I am an advocate for the idea of emotional support animals, but I firmly believe there should be greater oversight. This would include evaluation of the appropriateness of a pet to serve as an emotional support, taking into consideration both the prospective health and welfare of the animal and the health and welfare of the public, particularly if the animal is to accompany the individual to facilities outside the home. Current federal law clearly states that an emotional support animal does not have to be trained or certified to be allowed to live with a person, implying that the animal does not have to be evaluated either. But federal law does not make stipulations about access to facilities other than the home for emotional support animals. Thus, businesses and institutions are free to make policies that allow individuals to be accompanied by their emotional support animals, while also providing for the safety of the public.

Counselors can more effectively advocate for their clients if they understand federal regulations pertaining to emotional support animals. Additionally, this information is beneficial for protecting the general public from those who might misrepresent the role of their animal or the right for the animal to accompany them into pet-restricted areas. Unfortunately, profit opportunists exist who encourage such misrepresentation by selling (to anyone who is willing to pay) an official-looking — yet completely unofficial — vest for a pet to wear and a worthless “certification” document that may ultimately confuse the public about the legitimate role of the animal and the rights of the individual the animal is accompanying.

Federal advocacy for those with emotional or psychiatric disabilities, through recognition of the right to have an emotional support animal in the home, is a positive development in our society. Moreover, businesses and institutions that recognize the potential benefits of allowing an emotional support animal to accompany a person with a disability outside of the home reflects enhanced sensitivity to human welfare.

Animals are an excellent source of nurturance and companionship. Creating additional yet responsible opportunities for human-animal interaction enhances people’s lives. Movement toward greater integration of well-behaved animals into our daily lives at home, school and work is a reflection of enlightened social evolution.

 

 

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Cynthia Chandler is a professor of counseling and director of the Consortium for Animal Assisted Therapy at the University of North Texas. She is author of the book Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling (2012). Contact her at cynthia.chandler@unt.edu.

The case for animal-protective counseling practice

By Peter Wollheim October 27, 2014

As counselors know, the ethical and legal requirement of the “duty to warn” has been adopted as a standard of care across many helping professions. It probably represents one of the most universal Photo of dog with personelements of counseling ethics regardless of cultural or national identity. Based on the Hippocratic notion of “first, do no harm” or avoidance of malfeasance, this duty is considered strong enough to override considerations of client confidentiality. In the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, Standard B.2.a. notes that confidentiality is not guaranteed “when disclosure is required to protect clients or identified others from serious and foreseeable harm.”

Unfortunately, the ACA Code of Ethics does not define harm, which could conceivably encompass financial fraud, verbal abuse, sexual seduction or unjustified termination of employment. But even more noticeably absent is any explicit duty to warn or protect should a client self-disclose current or future intent to maliciously injure animals or elements of the natural environment. These are excluded from the category of “identified others.”

I would like to present the case that a species-centric definition of such “others” requires serious re-examination given a number of important developments:

  • Neurobiological research on animal consciousness and experiences of pain
  • The promotion of animal-assisted psychotherapy and counseling
  • The growth of the animal rights movement and increased attention to humane slaughtering practices
  • Greater awareness of the mental health benefits of animal companionship

In general, it appears contradictory, if not hypocritical, to employ animals as co-partners in counseling and therapy while not defending their welfare within the context of counselor-client relationships.

Extending our ethical considerations

Much of our profession’s ethics, such as the core value of autonomy, rests on the formal philosophy of Immanuel Kant. His theories taught that moral agents should be treated as ends in themselves rather than means to an end. Avoiding exploitative relationships, maintaining confidentiality, providing competent services, avoiding and correcting discriminatory practices, and respecting the rights of research participants all reflect the Kantian emphasis on the intrinsic value of the individual as an ultimately self-defining “who” rather than a “what.” Even the use of the term duty in ethical codes comes directly from Kant.

The injunction to recognize and respect the subjectivity of each client argues for the most basic ethical adage, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It also encourages those empathic insights and sense of “fellow-feeling” that are so crucial to the therapeutic alliance. You cannot act upon the Golden Rule without a basic recognition that others experience pain in ways similar to, if not identical to, you.

A similar idea underlies Martin Buber’s distinction between relationships based on the authentic “I-Thou” and the impersonality of “I-It.” That existential perspective has also shaped much of psychotherapy. In terms of psychopathology, the inability to experience interpersonal empathy often indicates narcissistic, sociopathic and antisocial personality disorders. Even Kant argued that cruelty to animals deadens feelings of compassion in people.

Unfortunately for animals, Kant did not extend his ethical considerations to non-human beings. Like most Enlightenment thinkers, he believed that only humans demonstrate the logical capacity and free will to act as moral agents. This line of thought was preceded by rationalist philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes, and metaphysicians from Plato to Judeo-Christian theologians who denied that animals possess consciousness or a soul.

But surely we as counselors should refute this perspective. For starters, the standard of full rationality and free will doesn’t entirely fit clients who are dealing with thought disorders, depression, developmental disabilities, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimer’s, states of intoxication or, for that matter, childhood and adolescence. Yet those whom philosophers ill-advisedly called “marginal human beings” enjoy full respect and protection under the ACA Code of Ethics.

Furthermore, current research in ethology, primatology, comparative neurology and consciousness studies increasingly demonstrates that moral consciousness is a difference of degree rather than kind. An increasing number of studies provide evidence for various dimensions of mental complexity across several species, including schema construction, tool making and use, abstract reasoning, self-consciousness and mathematical abilities. Highly social and mutually cooperative animals such as those that congregate in extended families, herds or troops demonstrate empathy, altruism, forgiveness, levels of ethical decision-making and perhaps that most social and moral emotion of all — shame. Examples include rodents, canines, elephants, chimpanzees, orangutans and baboons.

The evidence that animals experience pain is growing rapidly as well, even as it still generates considerable debate. Whatever one’s personal stance on this issue, modern animal-handling techniques recognize the importance of considering such questions in actual practice. The increased use of humane slaughter and hunting techniques, championed by Temple Grandin and others, is based on measurable indicators of suffering such as neurochemical stress reactions and learned avoidance of pain. The American College of Veterinary Anesthesiologists has also considered this matter deeply and issued a list of behavioral and physiological indicators of animal distress.

Protecting our counseling colleagues

Even more directly, the use of non-human beings as adjuncts or co-therapists is acknowledged under labels such as “animal-assisted activities” (AAA) and “animal-assisted therapy” (AAT). It has Young child receives animal-assisted therapy from counselor and doglong been noted that the simple companionship of domesticated animals helps reduce human stress levels, lowers blood pressure and elevates morale and feelings of well-being. Animal-based counseling practices take these benefits to higher levels. AAA and AAT currently employ a long list of species, including dogs, horses, rabbits, birds, reptiles and fish.

Section D of the ACA Code of Ethics (“Relationships With Other Professionals”) lays out specific obligations counselors have to their professional colleagues. The introduction to this section states in part, “Counselors develop positive working relationships … with colleagues to enhance services to clients.” Standards D.1.b. (“Forming Relationships”), D.1.d. (“Establishing Professional and Ethical Obligations”) and D.1.h. (“Negative Conditions”) carry these implications forward as well.

To pose the question directly, how have animals not served as colleagues to the counseling profession? From the development of behaviorist theories to clinical trials of psychotropic medications, from Harry Harlow’s experiments on social isolation with rhesus monkeys to neurosurgery studies on brain function, animals have been recruited to provide important insights into learning, sociability, substance and process addiction, and the proper use of psychopharmaceuticals.

In practice it seems difficult to defend any human counselor who employs non-human adjuncts yet fails to act on behalf of their welfare. The continuity and emotional bonding of the client-assistive animal relationship obviously depends on the health and longevity of the animal in question. In these sorts of relationships, animals are not interchangeable. Clients would surely suffer from grief reactions due to the sickness, injury or death of individual non-human companions or co-therapists.

Moral considerations aside, it’s self-defeating to ignore the documented and even predictive associations between animal torture and serious psychopathology. There are high levels of uncertainty in forecasting client violence, but a growing body of evidence links animal cruelty to antisocial personality disorder, antisocial personality traits, polysubstance abuse and potential for serial homicide. Malicious harm to animals also appears indicative of early childhood trauma, current domestic violence and developmental disabilities. Animal hoarding often symptomizes obsessive-compulsive or borderline personality disorders. The extent of these associations is so high that many states mandate psychiatric assessment for all individuals charged with violating animal cruelty laws.

Other considerations

Critics may object that an animal-protective policy fails to respect cultural sensitivities. So-called blood sports have enjoyed popularity around the globe. The animals involved in staged gladiatorial contests range from bulls and cocks to dogs, rats, fish and even insects. The most hotly debated example remains the corridas, or bullfights, that some have branded as sadistic but that proponents defend as central to Spanish and Mexican national identity. Fox hunting has raised parallel concerns in the United Kingdom. Animal racing and rodeos are subject to similar controversies.

Yet amateur and professional associations of hunters, anglers, circus owners, race course owners, rodeo and bull fight organizers and even pest exterminators have published ethical guidelines meant to minimize pain to creatures that are either used for sport or subject to systematic killing. Fans of corridas, for example, prize the “clean kill,” just as ethical hunters advocate the doctrine of “fair chase.” Fly fishers argue for “catch and release,” while the United Kingdom’s Masters of Foxhounds Association insists that quarry be “quickly and humanely dispatched.” If such organizations provide ethical protection for animals, why should the American Counseling Association lag behind?

It must be noted that attention to the welfare of animals does not guarantee empathy for fellow human beings. One of the strictest and most comprehensive pieces of governmental legislation in this area was the 1933 law on animal protection, enacted by the top leadership of Nazi Germany. Almost immediately after coming into power, the Third Reich banned vivisection and tail docking, animal trapping, the killing of wolves and inhumane slaughter practices. The Nazis also promoted public school education in support of these policies.

Thus, extending consideration to animals does not by itself ensure the ethical treatment of people. But with the ACA Code of Ethics so firm in its resolve to underscore the universality of human rights and welfare, this historical aberration need not determine the limits of moral discourse. To the contrary, it should encourage a greater respect for the variety and multitude of creatures that experience a demonstrable inwardness and subjectivity.

Considering animal welfare encourages more deliberate and contextual thinking about how counseling clients function within their own web of significant relationships that includes family, occupation, political structures, mental health care delivery systems and the natural environment. But the counseling profession, like so many others, generally operates in an urbanized society characterized by an increasing separation of people from nature. Consider that even in the “Dimensions of Personal Identity” document that used to be offered on the ACA website, relationships with biota were never specified. And the place of animals in people’s lives was barely touched upon in the CACREP-accredited program from which I graduated. Yet, ironically, ecotourism opportunities and appeals to travel to unspoiled wilderness areas are sometimes touted in advertisements for ACA annual conference sites.

What all of this argues for is incorporation of animal-related considerations into any future drafts of the ACA Code of Ethics. At the very least, it urges all counselors and counseling agencies to adopt specific policies within their practices. For example, under my personal “statement of clients’ rights” Dog being pettedthat each client signs after review, we list the standard reasons for violating confidentiality. But we also add the following: “Please note that if clients reveal current or intended malicious harm to animals such as torture or neglect, we will need to consider reporting such activity to law enforcement or animal protection agencies.”

To date, I have never had to violate confidentiality on the basis of any client self-disclosing deliberate and malicious harm to animals. But at the very least, the policy does serve as a reminder of the essential “creatureliness” that clients and clinicians share as we engage in treatment together. It also reminds us that the genuine love that clients and animals often share for each other offers a model for experiencing trust, deep connection, unconditional love, pleasure, play and perhaps even joy. Such a wellspring of healing deserves the protection of ethical principles and professional practices.

Perhaps ACA will eventually recognize this in formal policy terms, having missed the opportunity in the 2014 revision of its ethics code. Until that day, those of us in private and agency practice can move ahead on our own.

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Peter Wollheim is a licensed professional counselor in Idaho and the founder of Mental Health Boise. Contact him at peter@mhboise.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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