Animal Assisted Therapy

Animal Assisted TherapyAs therapists we see clients with many different types of disorders but nearly all tend to have a common theme: they report feeling better when interacting with animals. Over the last decade animal assisted therapy (AAT) has become an active area of research and inclusion in the various therapeutic settings. The formal definition of AAT is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria and is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession. Animals have been used in hospitals with sick children and nursing homes with depressed elderly with memory problems. Dogs, in particular, have been used on psychiatric wards to help actively psychotic patient’s reality test by interacting with the animal. The newest type of animal assisted therapy has focused on dogs trained to work with veterans to help reduce PTSD symptoms and offer comfort at times when symptoms do increase. Animal assisted therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in individual in psychiatric hospitals. The very basic act of petting a dog can reduce your feelings of loneliness, increase social interactions, increase relaxation and increase your feelings of connections to the outside world. The act of petting an animal naturally decreases heart rate and blood pressure. In nursing homes animals are frequently used with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients to increase their interactions with others and help them to engage in the external world.

Contrary to popular belief not just any animal can become a certified assistance animal. Dogs in particular go through temperament testing as a puppy to ensure they possess the appropriate temperament characteristics to perform in a variety of settings. The puppy has to display an even temperament and not become easily scared in new situations. Once the puppy has been selected the puppy and handler go through extensive training that can take up to a year to achieve final therapy certification. The handler also ensures the puppy is exposed to as many various environments as possible during this first year. This helps ensure that the puppy does not act out of fear when exposed to new and unusual settings. Once all the training and certification is complete the dog is officially considered a therapy dog that can offer animal-assisted therapy in a variety of settings. At all times in all settings it is the responsibility of the handler to control the animal and ensure proper interactions with clients.

Dutch, our therapy canine pictured above, is a key member of our staff at Focus Forward Counseling and Consulting. He is an Irish Cream Golden Retriever bred by Hollie Mann of Syrah Goldens and was specifically selected for temperament characteristics most likely to lead to success as a therapy canine. Puppy temperament testing includes formal tests such as the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test.