Staff Voices: Some Common Questions About Pet Therapy

Staff Voices: Some Common Questions About Pet Therapy

Previously, I wrote on "My Experience With Pet Therapy." This time around I thought it would be helpful to answer some commonly asked questions I am often asked in my discussions of Pet Therapy with people and during Pet Therapy encounters.  In addition, I am including some things I have learned along the way pertaining to setting up Pet Therapy programs and working within the programs.

1. What is Pet Therapy?

Understanding Pet Therapy is probably best done through an explanation of two terms:  Animal Assisted Activity (AAA) and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT).  These terms are used to reflect animal assistance in different contexts.

According to Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society), AAA includes the assistance of an animal to enhance motivation, education, quality of life, or other therapeutic benefit without the presence of specific treatment goals.  AAA can occur in or outside of a healthcare setting.   An example of AAA would be the presence of therapy dogs in a pediatric waiting room to provide recreation and stress relief for patients.  Another example would be visits by a therapy dog to a school where students with reading difficulties practice their reading skills while the dogs listen.  Documentation of the encounter may occur in AAA but is not required.

On the other hand, AAT is an activity in a healthcare setting that involves the participation of an animal to facilitate a patient’s progress toward specific treatment goals.  An example of AAT would be the use of a dog in treating a phobic patient via in vivo exposure.  Another example would be the use of a dog to provide balance for ambulatory rehabilitation.  The use of AAT is typically documented in the patient’s medical record.

Pet Therapy most often reflects AAA, and the programs that I have been involved in best fit within that category.  However, Therapy Dogs may be utilized in both AAA and AAT, depending on their training and the needs of the setting.   Sometimes, a Therapy Dog may be working in the capacity of a service animal which is discussed below.  Again, this would depend on the training of the dog as well as the needs (i.e., disability) of the owner.

2.  What is the difference between a therapy dog and a service animal?

A therapy dog is a dog that provides some sort of assistance or positive benefit in an institution such as a school, hospital, or nursing home by facilitating progress toward specific treatment goals (as is the case with AAT) or enhancing outlook, motivation or overall experience of those served (in the case of AAA).

A service animal, as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is a dog that is trained specifically to do work for an individual with a disability (physical, sensory, psychiatric, or otherwise).  The work done by the dog must relate directly to the individual’s disability.  Examples of service animals include dogs for the visually impaired and dogs that can detect seizures for an epileptic person.   Service animals require a higher level of training than do therapy dogs due to the tasks that they may be required to perform (e.g., turning on/off lights, guiding a visually impaired person through traffic). Both therapy dogs and service animals are widely used in activities of AAA, AAT, and assistance with disability—in civilian settings, military settings, and with veterans.   For a wealth of information about the use of therapy and service dogs in the military see the April-June 2012 issue of the United States Army Medical Department Journal at:

3.  How do dogs become certified as a therapy dog?

The answer to this question depends on where you live and what kind of accrediting organization you choose to use.   Many cities have local Pet Therapy organizations that provide training, testing, and certification of Therapy Dogs (and perhaps other animals, too).  An advantage to a local group is that the organization provides opportunities for Pet Therapy visits and an immediate group of people and dogs with similar interests and skills.   However, there are also national organizations that certify dogs such as Therapy Dogs, Inc. and Therapy Dogs International.   An online search in your area will help you identify whether or not you have a local group for support and you can also find other national organizations online, too.

4.  How much training is required to become a Pet Therapy team?

This varies, but in general, Therapy Dogs have basic obedience skills and good personalities.  The dog must be well trained on a leash and respond to basic verbal commands.  In addition, Therapy Dogs need to like people and enjoy being petted and near others since their job is to do this in public places.  Ideally, Therapy Dogs can do a few tricks to entertain others but this is certainly not required.  Obviously all forms of aggression (to both people and other animals) are unacceptable.  Therapy Dogs need to be able to tolerate strangers and unusual experiences (e.g., sudden loud noises, unexpected physical contact from the rear) without becoming afraid or aggressive.  There are requirements for the handlers, too.  Handlers must be able to control the dog with ease and create a positive encounter between the dog and the patient.  In addition, handlers need to be familiar with organizational rules (e.g., patient privacy rules) and adhere to them.  Handlers need to remain current on all certification requirements.

If you are thinking of initiating a Pet Therapy program, the following guidelines may be helpful to you:

  • Informally assess the environment to see how receptive others are to developing a Pet Therapy program.  You will have a hard time initiating a program if you are the only one who thinks it’s a good idea.
  • Seek buy-in and support from leaders within your organization.  Clearly you must do this before taking real steps to set up a Pet Therapy program.  Once you have leadership on your side, it’s much easier to illustrate to the rest of the organization that such a program is warranted.
  • Present the latest literature on the benefits of Pet Therapy as you are seeking support from leadership.  While there is not a surplus of real research in this area, studies are out there and the field is growing.
  • Present examples of successful Pet Therapy programs to leadership, along with the known benefits to the organization.  There are many civilian and military hospitals that have received positive community and accreditation recognition for their Pet Therapy program.  Leaders like this kind of recognition!
  • Create a committee (small or large) to meet at least monthly to build and maintain the program.  You will need representatives from key elements of your organization such as infectious disease specialists (to address animal disease concerns), volunteer services, etc.
  • Create organizational policies and guidelines to structure the program.   Specify details such as program points of contact, certification requirements for the dogs, tracking of visits, sign-in and sign-out procedures, reporting of adverse incidents.
  • Set a high standard for eligibility for participation in the program—forming a relationship with a local therapy dog organization is one way to do this.  It is important to have a committee member to track all Pet Therapy teams’ eligibility and make sure that everyone is current on vaccines, Pet Therapy certification, etc.
  • Learn from other programs.  Ask for examples of policies, procedures, rules, etc.  Most programs are happy to share.
  • Collect data!  From the beginning, get feedback from patients, staff, and others who interact with the therapy dogs.  This will help you make any necessary changes to the program and show leadership that your program is having a positive impact!

I consider myself fortunate to have been able to participate in Pet Therapy throughout my career.   Hopefully the information in this article will be helpful in answering some common questions about Pet Therapy and give some preliminary guidance to others who may want to initiate a program.  I have certainly seen that Pet Therapy is a great tool in healthcare settings and community outreach, and I look forward to seeing research examining this in future literature.

Part 1: "My Experience With Pet Therapy."

Dr. Regina Shillinglaw is a Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologist for the Center for Deployment Psychology at Wright-Patterson Medical Center in Dayton, OH.