Mental health counselors and animal assisted therapy

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Carter trainingMore and more mental health counselors are embracing animal assisted therapy – AAT – because of its value with people of all ages and with a wide range of issues. Even Sigmund Freud often incorporated his Chow Chow, Jofi, into counseling sessions.

Animal assisted interventions are highly effective in a number of professions, including counseling. By harnessing the power of the human-animal connection in a counseling setting, a therapist can use AAT in many therapeutic ways. In addition, an animal can help a practitioner evaluate a patient’s mental state or send a message to patients that the counselor is a pet-lover, a trait that signals to some that the individual is “safe” or a “good” person.

AAT can be used in a variety of settings – inpatient, outpatient, community, school, abuse/neglect, foster care, substance abuse, nursing homes, and so on. But it’s not simply a matter of taking your pet to work. Here are a few things you’ll want to consider before introducing an animal into a therapeutic setting.

Know what you want to accomplish.

Merely having an animal, whether it’s a dog, cat, bird, or anything else, in the room during a counseling session is not considered animal assisted therapy. AAT is a goal-directed, documented activity that’s used to facilitate the therapeutic process.

The animal needs to be intentionally integrated into treatment. Questions to ask before incorporating animals into the practice include:

  • Why is the animal here?
  • When do I step in, and when do I let the client and animal interact?
  • How do I use the animal’s story with the client?
  • How do I handle projection from the client onto the animal?
  • How do I determine if the goals are being met because of the interactions with the animal?

You want to have measurable goals for the AAT component so that you can track progress – or lack thereof – and adjust accordingly.

Get buy-in from the top.

If you’re going to introduce AAT to your facility or agency, getting the support of the person in charge makes a huge difference.

It helps if you’re already an animal lover.

Because it’s important to keep the animals safe, you should have a working knowledge of that animal’s behavior. Animals get stressed, tired, and over-stimulated, too, so you need to be able to recognize that and act accordingly, removing the animal to a safe place when necessary.

Dogs, for example, sleep 12 to 14 hours a day, so it’s not realistic to expect them to work with clients all day. In fact, Pet Partners, an organization that promotes positive human-animal therapy, activities, and education, recommends that dogs participate for no longer than two hours at a time.

As a practitioner, you are the advocate for the animal first, as well as for the client.

Notify clients of animal involvement in advance.

You’ve probably been in social situations before where you’ve seen a guest interact (or not) with the host’s pet and thought, “That person definitely isn’t an animal lover.” It works that way in therapeutic environments, too.

If an animal will be in your office, you’ll need to alert clients ahead of time. It’s not just about whether or not they’re comfortable with pets – there are also allergies, cultural beliefs, and fears to consider.

Investigate insurance and legal requirements.

Insurance needs will vary depending on situations, but it’s important to find out whether you will need liability insurance if you’re going to work with animals. A therapist’s coverage will probably not include problems like dog bites, for example.

Many therapists are taking the extra step of getting training in animal assisted therapy. Oakland University offers an online Animal Assisted Therapy Certificate program. For more information, visit the school’s animal assisted therapy website.

Have you incorporated an animal into your counseling practice? Tell us how in a comment.

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