Not all therapy dogs are created equal

The graduates from the April 2015 advanced animal-assisted therapy course.

When Rory and I completed our first training course in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) back in 2013, we joined a pool of 21 certified animal-assisted therapy teams who graduated that year and the majority of participants wanted to volunteer with their dogs in nursing homes or schools. The concept of working with animals in psychological settings was still quite new in Australia. Often, when I said I was an animal-assisted therapist, most people assumed that meant I was providing therapy to maladjusted Chihuahuas or socially awkward felines.

Cut to 2017 and AAT is being featured in major newspapers and on tv programs, absolutely flooding social media and online newsfeeds and there will be a grand total of 80 graduates from the Lead the Way Institute AAT course this year alone. At the recent Education Show, more than half of the people who came to speak to us about the programs we provide had heard of AAT and most wanted to know where they could go to get AAT training. However, disturbingly, a significant number also spoke about people they knew or worked with who were already bringing dogs to their workplaces (mainly schools in this instance) and didn’t I think that was wonderful?

The short answer is, no. No, I don’t think that’s wonderful at all. In fact, I fear it is a recipe for disaster and it compelled me to write this article in response.

Now, for those of you who are familiar with me, or with our work here at 12 Points Psychology, you know I am a passionate advocate for the wonders of AAT and am prone to proudly and loudly extolling its virtues whenever and wherever I can (hence the recent Education Show). However, I am also a passionate advocate for evidence-based therapy and maintaining the strictest health and well-being standards for myself, my clients and my animals. I fear that the recent (and primarily welcomed) upsurge in interest for AAT is creating a situation where the availability of qualified, certified, trained and assessed AAT teams cannot meet the demand. This in turn means that well-meaning but untrained therapists are stepping in to try and provide a (very popular) service, but without the proper training in place to ensure the health and safety of the practitioners, recipients and animals or the integrity of the therapy or intervention itself.

I don’t believe for a second that these practitioners are anything other than well-meaning and I know that they do care for their clients and their animals. But as the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know” and I fear their lack of proper training means that many providers who decide to “just bring their dog to work”, won’t know how much they don’t know until it’s too late and someone has been badly hurt.

I have covered the work involved in certifying an AAT handler team in previous posts, which I invite you to look at here, so I won’t repeat myself, but what’s most relevant to this article, is that, aside from providing:

  • a solid theoretical foundation in the use of AAT,
  • an overview of health and safety concerns when working with animals
  • basic obedience training and
  • a network of other AAT providers for ongoing help, advice and support,

the training process in its entirety is crucial in establishing a trusting bond between the animal and handler and there’s no substitute for that.

It really doesn’t matter how sweet or docile a dog is under controlled, familiar conditions at home, what is of utmost importance is knowing how a dog behaves when it’s stressed and tired and subjected to poor handling or novel conditions.

What’s equally important is knowing how to recognise and respond to a problem before it arises. Because, no matter how careful we are with our dogs, clients can sometimes be inappropriate with them, either from exuberance or aggression, and at those times it’s incredibly important that we are able to read the dog’s body language and intervene to; keep the dog safe, keep the client safe and also preserve the therapeutic relationship.

I am the last person in the world to discourage anyone from exploring AAT. It is an enriching and engaging field that I am privileged to be a part of. But equally, I am also the last person in the world who can watch an accident about to happen without trying to intervene. It would be beyond tragic for all involved to see the practice of AAT sullied by an incident where a stressed out dog reacts against a client. Especially if that could so easily be prevented with the proper training and certification systems in place.

So for practitioners, if you’re interested in learning more about AAT, get in touch with me here at 12 Points Psychology, or Melanie Jones at Lead the Way Institute.

For consumers, believe me when I say, I understand the lure of a dog! And I know how much the AAT animals can add to the therapeutic environment and experience, but make sure your AAT provider has received proper training. At a minimum, they should;

  • outline their AAT work on their consent forms,
  • have policies & procedures in place for the use of the animals (including hygiene practices) and
  • they should be able to explain the purpose of having the animal in session with you.

The inclusion of animal-assisted therapy is an exciting development in the provision of psychological services and I want to ensure it’s a service that continues to safely grow in both popularity and accessibility. My only hope is that it doesn’t prove too popular for its own good. Because we want to keep providing this service for many years to come to as many people as possible. Rory for one wouldn’t have it any other way!

Two of our therapists enjoying the perks of working with trained therapy dogs, Jersey & Rory.