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Amy Johnson Dec 15, 2009

Considerations when preparing to use animal-assisted therapy

“I named my dog Faith. I named her that because I have faith in her.”
"I have learned to be more patient and Mack has brought up my mood when I’m down.”
“Working with my dog has allowed me to learn so much about myself and others.”
“…I finally got my level for the first time since I’ve been here! I want to come work with my dog so it makes me try harder in my program.”
These quotes come from youth in our program who have been labeled as a “bad seed,” “monster,” “unreachable” or “untreatable.” Thankfully, the dogs with whom they have worked do not see the children that way. Instead, these behaviorally challenged shelter dogs have helped the youth improve their self-efficacy, self-worth, patience, impulse control and accountability.

Because the dogs have been able to crack open the door to their souls, the therapists have really been given the opportunity to reach the kids at a level that may have not been possible otherwise. It is so humbling to witness the bond and changes the youth are making internally and externally. I could spend this whole blog writing examples and stories about the experiences and I have no doubt that those of you who have an interest in animal assisted therapy could relay similar anecdotes, but I would like to share a few things that ought to be considered before beginning animal assisted therapy. For the sake of space, this blog will speak to using dogs specifically.

This is obvious, but for those of us who love dogs, it’s a little difficult to imagine that not everyone does. For a variety of reasons, some clients may not be comfortable around dogs. We have had residents/students who did not like dogs initially who have dramatically changed their minds, but it cannot be forced.

For clients who have been bitten, attacked or otherwise threatened by a dog in their past, this fear can make an animal assisted intervention difficult, but not impossible. Some clients may want to use the opportunity to work through this fear. Other therapists have told stories about clients who were very hesitant about having a dog in the room, but because of the dog’s ability to calm the client, they have changed their mind. The direction needs to come from the client when she is ready. We also need to consider that if we share office space or work in a school or residential setting, others entering the building should know that there will be a dog on site. Even for clients who love dogs, there are allergies to consider. Individuals can be allergic to the fur, dander or saliva of the dog so even having a dog who doesn’t shed could still a pose potential allergy issues. It is necessary to have a sign on the door indicating that there is a dog on premises, as perhaps someone in another room or waiting room may have fears or allergies. It is also important to let clients know when they call to set up an appointment for the first time that you do have a dog present in your therapy room. If they have any issues or concerns with the dog, determine what accommodations you can make.

If you have a dog in your office, there will also need to be a separate room or crate for clients who are not ready or willing to work with a dog in the room. Since we’re making considerations, we need to consider the dog himself. Sometimes dogs get tired or overstimulated and they need a break as well. Therapists need to be able to recognize when their dogs are feeling stressed and oftentimes, we think that because WE are fine seeing client after client as we have been trained to do, the dogs are fine too. But that’s not true; sometimes they need to take a break. Dogs innately sleep a lot more than humans – typically 12-16 hours a day. We need to make concessions for their need for sleep. The repercussions for keeping your dog engaged when he needs to take a break can result in a bite. Learning about dog behavior would be beneficial and a topic I will write about later, hoping you don’t mind!

Consideration #2: CULTURE
I have worked with children from other cultures where dogs are a food source. They have a hard time relating to dogs as ‘friends’ or ‘companions’ with feelings. This does not rule out the opportunity for them to learn to engage with another living being. We worked with a boy from Korea who had a million questions about the dog he was working with. He was motivated to research information on line himself, and the first time his dog licked him, he was disgusted. Once I explained to him why dogs lick, he not only welcomed it, but would encourage it!

Consideration #3: LIABILITY
Finally, though certainly not the end of considerations to be made, liability insurance is a must. Because children, adults and dogs are unpredictable, we need to protect everyone involved. Even if a therapist using Animal Assisted Interventions has a waiver, legally, a waiver does not mean we are protected from a lawsuit. Insurance is not that expensive…mine runs less than $200 a year. If your dog goes through Therapy Dog International for certification or the Delta Society, certification often comes with a liability insurance policy.

If you have other thoughts, considerations, or questions please feel free to post a comment!

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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