Over the last months, there have been several Facebook discussions among therapists about bringing dogs to the office. I understand the urge! All of us who adore and have felt the power of healing from four-legged friends want to share that with our clients. We know about the benefits of that non-judgmental, feel good, oxytocin-producing presence of animals. And while there are many kinds of animals used in Animal Assisted Therapies (AATs), as therapists, it seems we most often talk about our dogs. So what if you want to bring your dog to work? Is it more involved than just buying a cute new water dish?
First, some clarification about AATs. AATs involve therapy animals and is defined by The American Veterinary Medical Association (2011) as:
“a goal directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is delivered and/or directed by health or human service providers working within the scope of their profession. Animal-assisted therapy is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, or cognitive function. Animal-assisted therapy is provided in a variety of settings, and may be group or individual in nature. The process is documented and evaluated.” 
Important points here are AATs must meet specific guidelines and standards and be seen as part of the treatment plan.
Animal assisted therapies (AATs) have supported and helped facilitate change for many people. That being said, there are considerations in incorporating our love for our pets in our practices and learning what is involved in the process of gaining therapy dog status is a beginning. Researching the difference in therapy dog certifications, emotional support dog certifications, and service dog certifications will help us establish the basis for what a therapy dog is and is not. The standards and definitions are very different for each of those three designations and they are often confused.
For your dog to be considered a therapy dog, there are standards that a handler (you) and the dog must complete. These standards are determined through organizations who oversee the practice of using animals in therapy. Several of the organizations offering certification are Love on a Leash, Delta Society/Pet Partners , Therapy Dogs, Inc., Pawsibilities Unleashed and Therapy Dogs International. Programs such as these require you and your animal meet with a certified representative of the group for an assessment of temperament and obedience for the animal, and an assessment of you and your dog as a therapy team. If this seems like a lot to think about, it is. There are other less stringent ways to just bring your dog to the office, but the idea is to be informed and intentional about your goals and your mindset.
In my private life, I have always had a dog by my side. Professionally, I have been the human half of a therapy dog team, and served as a two-legged therapy partner to horses. Both my dogs and the horses have one thing in common, they were trained for the work before they started the work. And maybe more importantly, I was trained to understand the natural behavior, the body language, and instincts of both horse and dog before I began to work with them in a therapeutic environment.
Dogs and their behaviors in a session can bring a richness and depth to the process as well as support when things are rough. They can challenge thinking habits, or direct a client to mindfulness in a session.
How best to do that is a skill set. As therapists, learning best practices and new techniques is something we do intentionally. Adding our dogs to the therapy process should be no different. Our goal is to always provide the best possible therapeutic experience for the client. And there is a process and a dynamic to learn about facilitating a session with the addition of the less predictable, honest, and in-the- moment element of animal response.
It’s crucial to be mindful about the process of bringing your dog to the office just as we are with everything else we do with our clients. Here are a few things to consider as you move forward:
If you have thought through the considerations and plan on bringing your dog into the therapy process: read, research; and read and research some more. Animal assisted therapy implementation is more than certifying yourself and your dog. It is about learning a new model. It is important to understand AAT implications, ethical considerations, and best practices for the three living entities in the therapy session.
Taking the time to get certified as a therapy team is a great way to start. Explore and learn about all the types of certifications for you and your dog — review the different agencies and programs available. At the minimum, seek out AKC Good Citizen Certification or the equivalent so you know more about your relationship with your dog. Completing the certification process is a great act of self-care and a wonderful opportunity for dog-dedicated time. You will meet wonderful people who are also there because they understand that animals are good for healing. Consider professional training in AATs– many universities now offer courses and there are some great books, studies, and workshops available.
Bringing your dog to the office, or making him/her a part of the therapy team, in my humble opinion, gets you a big high five! I believe in the power of animals. The newest brain science supports animal partnerships as part of the healing journey. Create a trauma-informed and empowering environment, build partnerships of respect, empathy, and compassion for your client, your animal of choice, and yourself. I’d love to help. If you have questions or want more information, contact me!
These are links with information and resources that may be helpful (inclusion is not an endorsement but for information purposes only):