The Oakland University Center for Human Animal Interventions (CHAI) recently (August 12-14, 2015) hosted its first Learning Summit at the school’s Rochester, Mich., campus. The event brought together a small group of elite industry thought-leaders from around the country to discuss the state of the industry and review what’s needed for legitimacy and growth.
Over the course of three days in August, sessions delivered by the Center’s leaders and advisory council members provided the foundation for productive, facilitated discussions on topics related to standards, ethics, and best practices.
Topics presented and discussed are relevant to practitioners and volunteers involved in all types of animal assisted interventions (AAI), as they will help shape the field’s future. A brief summary of each session follows.
“Good Intentions Are Not Enough”
Colleen Pelar, training manager of All About Dogs in northern Virginia and the author of several books on children and dogs, focused on how practitioners can navigate through the tensions of unmet expectations in terms of therapeutic outcomes. She said that practitioners and volunteers need to look to continuing education and industry best practices for the tools necessary to develop a manageable and realistic therapeutic program for clients. Takeaways included understanding that safety and welfare of the animal is tantamount, flexibility in a therapeutic program is essential, and educating the practitioner in animal behaviors is key.
“The Welfare of the Animal and Practitioner”
C.J. Bentley, an animal behavior consultant and senior director of operations for the Michigan Humane Society, and Kim Cardeccia, a licensed professional counselor providing equine therapy sessions, co-presented this session on the best ways to both prepare an animal to participate in AAI sessions and educate the practitioner on the animal’s behavior. They stressed that practitioners must be aware of their animals’ behavioral traits if they’re going to assess their ability to participate in therapy sessions. When an animal shows signs of stress, a practitioner is obligated to put the animal’s welfare first for the safety of both the animal and the client.
“Provider Competence and Professional Ethics”
For this session, Leslie Stewart, an assistant professor of counseling at Idaho State University who has designed and implemented animal assisted therapy (AAT) counseling programs in college counseling centers, teamed with Laura Bruneau, an associate professor of counselor education at Adams State University who holds a certificate in animal assisted therapy. They focused on Stewart’s doctoral dissertation about standardized competencies in animal assisted therapies and interventions in a counseling setting.
This research undergirds CHAI’s work to develop best practices and industry standards. While the main research focus was on counselors, there are overarching themes that can be generalized across other disciplines, as well. Practitioner skill sets based on knowledge, ability, and attitude are fundamental to standardized competencies and ethical practices.
“AAI Standards, Ethics, Competencies, Education and Evaluation”
Melissa Winkle, president of Animal Assisted Intervention International and a New Mexico-based private practice occupational therapist, discussed the importance of language when developing AAI standards and best practices. Melissa shared the need for ensuring that the welfare of the animal as co-therapist is considered every step of the way. Noting that registering animals is also critical, she explained that putting an animal through an evaluation and registration process allows the practitioner to get an objective and unbiased view of her animal’s proclivity to the work.
“Client Perspectives of Animal Assisted Therapy”
Amy Johnson, CHAI director and event organizer, presented a pivotal session that allowed participants from the Teacher’s Pet program at Macomb County Juvenile Justice Center (MCJJC) in Mt. Clemens, Mich., to discuss how this specific program using AAT helped them to become more self-aware and empathetic to others. The presentation featured an analysis of recent research conducted within the MCJJC , implementation of the research in therapeutic programs, and the impact it has on clients.
“Animal Assisted Therapies with Less Common Species”
Mary Margaret Callahan, senior national director of program development for Pet Partners’ therapy animal program, reviewed animal assisted interventions with nontraditional species. She also addressed interventions conducted by volunteers in nonclinical settings. One of the takeaways from this session was the need to address evaluative measures for those using AAI in general. Appropriate mechanisms should be developed and implemented by organizations promoting AAI, whether the intervention is conducted by a practitioner or a volunteer. These processes can then be standardized as part of an overall best practice development strategy.
“Oh the Places We Can Go: Future Directions”
Licensed psychologist Aubrey Fine, a professor at California State Polytechnic University and the author of Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy, Fourth Edition: Foundations and Guidelines for Animal-Assisted Interventions, provided the Summit’s wrap-up program. Because this session summarized how to move forward, Fine reiterated the need for uniform terminology as a way to bridge the gap between the researcher and practitioner. Industry leaders must develop clear ethical standards within AAI practices that take animal welfare and practitioner competence into account. Standards that include clear ethical practices will support academic institutions offering AAI programs and legitimize credentials for practitioners. Academics must think outside the box to help the field evolve.
Next steps for participants include promoting the ethics and competencies that have been developed as well as providing a foundation of ethics and competencies specific to AAIs, regardless of which field it is in. Additionally, all agreed that industry leaders need to create and share more continuing education courses to ensure practitioners are up to date on the latest trends.
Learn more about the Center for Human Animal Interventions and the school’s online Animal Assisted Therapy Certificate program at Oakland University’s animal assisted therapy website.
What do you think will add legitimacy to the field? Please share your thoughts in a comment.