When people think about partnering with their pets for animal assisted therapy, they often focus on the positive outcomes – the benefits their pets will bring to others. They know that this kind of therapy can help a wide range of clients, from struggling readers to veterans.
They know how much pleasure their pets bring them, too, and want others to experience that positive human-animal connection.
This makes perfect sense. In fact, the more you know about animal assisted therapy, the more inspired you might be to learn how you can bring the advantages of working with animals to those who will benefit, whether you do so as a health care professional or volunteer.
Before moving in that direction, though, you want to be certain that your pet will enjoy working alongside you – and will continue to enjoy it. Your pet, after all, is your priority.
Here are three simple steps that will make sure that you honor your pet’s welfare above all else.
- Have a professional evaluate your pet.
Let’s face it. You probably can’t be completely objective about whether your animal has what it takes to work with you as a therapy animal any more than you can be objective about someone you’re related to. We often see what we want to see.
Protect your pet (and clients) by having him evaluated by a professional. That might be a private trainer or someone affiliated with Therapy Dogs International or Pet Partners. Listen carefully to what they have to say before proceeding.
- Learn basic animal behavior.
It’s essential that anyone working with an animal in a therapeutic situation understands the animal’s body language. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dog, cat, horse, bird, or guinea pig.
What is typical for that species?
What is typical for your animal in particular?
Study animal behavior and learn what the body language means so you can interpret each situation with knowledge and objectivity. Just like humans, animals seek pleasure and avoid pain. When with others, but especially in a therapy situation, does your pet move toward or away from the person? Does he lean in to be petted, or move his head to avoid it? Does he keep walking towards his bed? Is he panting or pacing at the door? His needs need to come first. Not putting his needs first could reflect to the client that you would not put her needs first either.
Learn the physical signs of animal stress, too. Excessive dander, drool, and panting are a few animal stress indicators…positive or negative stress. Recognize and respond appropriately to them by giving the animal a rest break or removing it from the situation completely.
- Honor your pet’s routine.
What is natural behavior for your pet? Protect that so you protect your pet’s health.
Adult dogs, for example, sleep 12 to 14 hours a day, usually napping several times daily. To make sure you don’t interfere with your dog’s routine and rhythm, have a bed or crate nearby so he can recharge.
Horses, on the other hand, need variation in their routine, so it’s important to structure an equine therapy program with variety. It can help avoid the animal boredom that could lead to injury or behavior problems.
The Oakland University Animal Assisted Therapy Program’s position statement on the welfare of therapy animals notes that practitioners have a professional obligation to serve as their animals’ advocates. While clients and patients are at the center of animal assisted interventions, practitioners must always give top priority to the partner animal’s well-being.
Learn more about about that and how to incorporate animal assisted therapy into your practice at Oakland’s animal assisted therapy website.
What protections do you need in place for your animal partner in animal assisted therapy situations?