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: http://www.cs.amedd.army.mil/amedd_journal.aspx.
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:
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.
Dr. Regina Shillinglaw is a Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologist for the Center for Deployment Psychology at Wright-Patterson Medical Center in Dayton, OH.