Therapists and Their Dogs: I’m Thinking About Taking My Dog to the Office

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.” [1]

Important points here are AATs must meet specific guidelines and standards and be seen as part of the treatment plan.

Therapy Dogs

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.

Retired therapy dog, Adam.

Dogs in the Therapy Process

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.

Considerations

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:

  • A good place to start is addressing the ‘why’ of bringing the dog to the office?  What is your goal?  Consider the differences between a family pet, and a therapy animal. My experience is that some dogs make the shift easily from being “my dog” to going to “work”.  Some dogs do not.
  • Are you able to give attention to both the client’s needs and emotional state and the dog’s needs and emotional state? We know that experiencing and processing emotional and somatic experiences is hard on the client. But it can also be hard on our dogs who are attuned to body language and environmental factors. Knowing how your dog responds to and engages with emotional responses is important.
  • Do you have time in your schedule for the logistics–things like potty breaks, walks, or the dog throwing up on the carpet?  Can you build in play time for some stress release? And do you have a plan for the dog if he/she is not included in the session but still at the office?
  • What about the extra time needed for grooming and attending to the space?  Think through the weekly bath and daily grooming of a therapy dog. (There are tales of therapists neglecting this to the horror of their clients! I can tell you some stories another time.)
  • Consider environmental events: Does your dog hate thunderstorms? Bark when the mailman drops off the mail? Does your dog react to seeing a “SQUIRREL!” out the window (this is one reason our terrier will never be a therapy dog)?
  • Do you understand the dog’s nature as a pack animal, that instinctual drive to be part of a group designed to hunt and provide protection for its members?   No matter how domesticated, socialized, or trained– there are times when dogs will act like pack animals. Packs have established hierarchies and dogs learn at a very early age how to establish this order, just watch a mother and her pups.  Whether you realize it or not, you have established hierarchy with your precious pooch. But he/she has no established hierarchy with the client.  Do you understand how dogs establish roles in the pack? Pack behavior is defined through rough play, boundary pushing, licking, and body placement.  This can be great processing material as long as you are aware of what your dog is saying to the client and the client is comfortable with the behaviors. Understanding how dogs are hardwired will help you and the client determine goals and help you determine how AATs will support your clients.
  • Understanding your own stuff will prepare you if a client is  abrupt, mean, or acted out toward your dog?
  • Do you understand and can you attend to body language of your dog during the session if they are showing signs of stress or looking for ways to remove themselves from the situation?
  • Liability is another consideration. Your dog loves you, may be very social, and extremely cute and fun to be with. But, if your client becomes highly agitated and your dog perceives that this new pack member is a threat to their pack leader (you), your dog may act out. Are you covered? (There are add-ons to professional liability insurance policies for AAT’s. NASW-RRG just added an affordable one last year. Ask your policy provider about options. Most therapy dog certification programs offer liability coverage for teams but this is sometimes limited to non-professional settings such as volunteering.)
  • Informed consent must be part of the intake process if you bring your dog to work. Even if your dog is not in the therapy room during the session, it is important that the client realizes that there is an animal in the office. Consider allergies, smells, pet hair, and triggers around animals.

Getting Ready for Animal Assisted Therapy(AAT)

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):

http://risevanfleet.com/shop/product/essentials-of-canine-behavior-and-training-for-aapt/

www.iiaapt.org

http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-truth-about-animal-assisted-therapy/

http://www.oakland.edu/upload/docs/son/aat/fido%20meets%20freud.pdf

http://www.du.edu/socialwork/licensureandcpd/animalsandhumanhealth.html

https://www.thebalance.com/animal-assisted-therapy-certification-125703

https://www.coe.unt.edu/consortium-animal-assisted-therapy

https://tandfbis.s3.amazonaws.com/rt-media/pp/common/sample-chapters/9780415888332.pdf

http://www.zurinstitute.com/animal_assisted_resources.html

[1] https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Pages/Animal-Assisted-Interventions-Definitions.aspx

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