I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them, heard by them, to be understood and touched by them.
Virginia Satir, Family Therapy Pioneer (1916-1988)
Animal-Assisted Counseling (AAC) is a process in which a trained therapy animal works in partnership with a counselor to help clients resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve growth. Many different species can work well as therapy animals, however I focus on three: dogs, donkeys, and miniature horses.
Team Approach and Connection
I believe that clients of all ages find healing through relationships. Our therapeutic goals generally revolve around building a stronger connection with the self and stronger connections with others. Dogs, donkeys, and horses are all social animals and capable of forming authentic, healthy relationships with each other and with humans. Part of our preparation for working together is to build a connected relationship with each of my counseling partners. This allows us to work as a team they offer the opportunity for clients as they work towards making a healthy connection with them also.
What are the benefits of AAC?
AAC is offered when the animal partner has the potential to help a client work towards his or her therapeutic goals. There is a growing body of research-based evidence supporting the therapeutic benefits of AAC. Some of the potential benefits include:
increased motivation to participate in counseling
decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety
decreased symptoms associated with trauma, such as anxiety, depression, physical complaints, and behavioral dysregulation
increase in overall psychological health
increased ability to self-regulate
development of better social and communication skills
Are there any risks?
Because AAC integrates a live animal who is a different species from a human, certain risks exist for both the counseling partner and the human client. Those risks include (but are not limited to):
the animal partner experiencing stress, increased fear of client, and physical harm (as in a dog getting his tail accidentally stepped on)
the human client experiencing an increased fear of animals, exposure to zoonoses, an animal bite, accidentally scratched, or being knocked over.
The likelihood of these risks is low, due to the training and procedures that are put in place for AAC. These include: training of therapy animals, team evaluations through organizations such as Pet Partners and the Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy, up-to-date vaccinations, advanced and on-going training in the areas of animal-assisted counseling (including canine and equine communication).
What training do you and your animals have?
As the human part of our therapy team, I am an AAC-trained counselor. My training includes:
Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling distance-learning seminar through the University of North Texas State (2016)
Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy intensive training through Texas State University (2017)
Fundamentals of Natural Lifemanship two-day training (2020)
Introduction to Equine-Partnered Play Therapy seminar (2020)
Natural Lifemanship CORE training (2021)
I am a Certified Animal-Assisted Counselor (with my canine partner Gordon) and am in the process of earning certification in Natural Lifemanship as both an Equine Professional and Mental Health Professional.
Training and evaluation is also important for my animal partners. We have all passed the Pet Partners team evaluation at least once. My Canine Partner, Gordon, and I have been evaluated and certified through the AAC Academy. No standardized evaluation exists for equines in counseling at the present, however I informally ensure that any equine is able to complete one based on the AAC Academy's canine standards.
Isn't this the same as pet therapy?
The term "pet therapy" is often used in a wide variety of situations. We use the terms "animal-assisted counseling" and "equine-assisted psychotherapy" to more clearly describe what we and our animal partners do, as well as the increased requirements we meet in training, evaluation, structure, goals, and documentation.
Is this stressful for your animals?
It is important to me that our sessions be good for both the clients and my animal partners. Some of the procedures I have in place to reduce unhealthy levels of stress on my partners include:
selection of partners that appear open to connecting to humans (in other words, they seem to want to work with me)
my own training in canine and equine communication, assisting me in better evaluating my partners' stress levels
ability to choose whether to participate in therapy or interact with clients, including ability to take a break during a session
What are some examples?
Interventions utilizing AAC are as individual as clients' needs are. In some cases, the animal may lend a quiet, supportive presence to a client's verbal or expressive arts work. The animal may actively join in the process by assisting a client learn to self-regulate. At other times a client may teach the animal partner a new skill, learn to communicate requests to the animal (such as asking the therapy dog to run through a tunnel or the therapy donkey to roll a ball), or groom or care for the animal.