Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) taps into the “instinctive bond” humans have with other living things, says Michigan counselor Amy Johnson.
The practice can also build trust and strengthen the therapeutic relationship between a counselor and a client, she says.
However, simply having a dog in the room during a counseling session is not considered AAT, says Johnson, who co-facilitates the American Counseling Association’s AAT in Mental Health Interest Network with Cynthia Chandler, a counselor educator in Texas.
“AAT in its purest form is a goal-directed, documented activity used to facilitate the therapeutic process,” says Johnson. “There is an expression within the AAT world that says, ‘All dogs have read Carl Rogers.’ This pretty much sums it up. A dog is honest, genuine and nonjudgmental.”
The AAT interest network serves as sounding board for its 242 members to share ideas and stay up-to-date on issues related to this special area of practice.
Johnson teaches at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan and directs the schools Animal Assisted Therapy certificate program. Chandler is a professor of counseling at the University of North Texas and director of the schools consortium for Animal Assisted Therapy.
Q+A: Animal Assisted Therapy
Responses from Amy Johnson and Cynthia Chandler, co-facilitators of the American Counseling Association’s Animal Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network
Why should counselors be aware of or interested in AAT?
AAT is an increasingly popular intervention that makes a great adjunct to traditional talk therapies. It harnesses the power of the human-animal bond to benefit the client and assist in counselor-client rapport building.
… Human beings have an instinctive bond with other living systems. Sigmund Freud often incorporated his Chow Chow, Jo-fi, into his practice because she would help provide Freud a good assessment of the mental state of his patients and she had a calming influence on his patients, especially children. In the 1960s, Dr. Boris Levinson, a pioneer in AAT, began documenting his experiences with his “co-therapist,” Jingles. He noted that even youth who were seriously withdrawn made significant progress with the help of Jingles.
When working with children and adolescents, seeing a therapist with a dog or animal often helps them determine how they feel about the therapist. For example, they might think, “If the counselor is that nice to her dog, maybe she will be that nice to me,” or “If the dog thinks she’s a good person, maybe she is.” This helps with building the therapeutic relationship, which as we know is the essential component in therapy.
What are some tips or insights you’d give regarding AAT that could be useful to all counselor practitioners?
AAT can be used in a variety of settings — inpatient, outpatient, community, school, abuse/neglect, foster care, substance abuse, geriatrics, nursing homes, etc. If the therapist is trying to bring AAT into her facility or agency or take it to another agency, getting the support of the person in charge makes a huge difference.
What are some current issues or hot topics your interest network has been discussing?
The biggest would have to be the need for competencies and standards within the scope of practice. There are many individuals and professionals who think just bringing a dog into the room is AAT, but that could not be further from the truth.
Dogs, or other animals, need to be intentionally integrated into treatment. Why is the dog there? When does the practitioner step in, and when does she let the client and dog interact? How does the practitioner use the dog’s story with the client? How does the clinician handle projection from the client onto the dog? How does the clinician determine if the goals are being met because of the interactions with the dog? Intentionality is key.
What challenges do counselors face in this area?
There is definitely the need for more research — more quantitative research. Anyone who practices AAT can relay anecdotal stories all day long about how using AAT has impacted their clients, but for mainstream acceptance, insurance coverage, facilities to accommodate, etc., there needs to be more empirical data.
What’s going on in this area? Any new therapies, legislation, etc.?
There are more and more programs emerging that are certifying practitioners in AAT. Educating facilitators will definitely help promote positive and safe practices.
Liability insurance is often tricky, though there are more and more companies offering additional insurance for the dog or animal (dogs are easier).
It is critical though, as a therapist’s coverage will probably not include things like dog bites.
What would a new counselor need to know about this topic?
The types of animals being used vary as well. People use dogs, cats, pocket pets (hamsters, etc.), rabbits, llamas, reptiles, etc. Practitioners should have a working knowledge of animal behavior in order to keep the animals safe.
The animals have to be the No. 1 priority of the practitioner. If the animal is stressed, tired, overstimulated or not feeling well, there will need to be a place for him to go. If he’s hungry or needs to relieve himself, that should be done promptly. The practitioner is the advocate for the animal.
It’s also important to note that AAT is not for everyone. If a counselor has a dog in his office, he will need to make any new clients aware that he does have a dog and probably post a sign in the office. There are things like allergies, cultural beliefs and fears to consider.
What would a more experienced counselor need to know?
Really, the above: There has to be intentionality to the practice, the need for additional insurance coverage, the dog has to be the No. 1 priority, making clients aware, etc.
What makes you, personally, interested in this area?
I (Amy Johnson) have a nonprofit called Teacher’s Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together that pairs court-adjudicated youth with hard-to-adopt rescue dogs. Over the last nine years, I have seen the changes in youth, dogs and staff firsthand. It is beautiful to witness and never gets old.
One goal we have for our kids is fostering empathy. Dogs provide a safe venue in which to practice pro-social skills that are often minimal or very limited in troubled youth.
Larry Brendtro wrote that “being treated as a person of value and being able to show concern for others gives life purpose and meaning.” As human beings, we all need to have purpose and meaning. Without the opportunity to give and receive kindness, Brendtro adds, “young people remain self-centered and fail to develop empathy.”
Empathy cannot be taught, only experienced. So asking the youth in the program to “save” or improve the lives of “their” shelter dogs provides opportunities to practice empathy as well as a sense of responsibility, accountability and accomplishment, not to mention practicing patience and impulse control.
The Animal Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network is one of 17 interest networks open to ACA members. In the coming months, CT Online plans to highlight each network – from sports counseling to traumatology – with an online Q+A article.
For more information on ACA’s interest networks or to get involved, see counseling.org/aca-community/aca-groups/interest-networks.
Bethany Bray is a staff writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
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