“Getting started in Animal Assisted Therapy” is part four of a four part series on dogs and mental health in collaboration with Elizabeth Sánchez Arvizu, M.A.’s #ReFrameAndReEnchant initiative on Psychology for Geeks.

Wondering how to get started in Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

When I was a kid I wanted to grow up to do Animal Assisted Therapy.


Therapy wasn’t a thing that anyone in my family did and I definitely hadn’t heard of Animal Assisted Therapy. I actually wanted to be a zookeeper, but that’s a different topic for another blog post (that will probably never be written).

My first semester in my Masters program for Marriage and Family Therapy, we had an assignment to find a peer-reviewed research article in on a relationship-focused issue in a psychology-related journal.

That’s a whole lot of arguably unnecessary words to tell you that I found, and read, an article called Therapy Dogs in Couple and Family Therapy: A Therapist’s Perspective by Rachel Policay & Mariana Falconier.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Well actually, at the time of writing this article, it’s more of a future in progress.

Along the way, I connected with a few incredibly cute dogs on Instagram who turned out to have really helpful humans like Maggie and Adele who were ahead of me in researching AAT and willing to share what they knew.

Lucky me, right?

(Shout out to my own cute dog, Sunny, for leading me to them.)

Let me break down what I’ve learned:

1. Animal Assisted Therapy is different from Animal Assisted Activities.

This is something that was clearly outlined when I took the Pet Partners Therapy Animal Handler Online Course.

However, from my conversations with others it doesn’t feel like common knowledge, so we’re talking about it, okay?

Essentially, there are two different types of work for Therapy Dogs:

  • Animal Assisted Activities are when therapy pets are involved in activities to bring comfort to others through their presence such as visiting assisted living residents or stopping by hospital rooms.
  • Animal Assisted Therapy is when the animal is involved in a treatment plan—meaning that it is goal-directed and documented and the animal is working with someone like a mental health provider or occupational therapist.

All clear now?

Note: A less discused area is Animal Assisted Education in which a Therapy Dog may be involved in student goals.

2. Animal Assisted Therapy training is encouraged but unregulated.

There aren’t many training opportunities out there when it comes to starting a career in AAT.

Adele shared with me that she was able to take some courses centered on therapy animals when working on her veterinarian program; however, when she decided that wasn’t the path she wanted to take, she didn’t have any local options for a social-work focused program in AAT. Her solution was to have Rosie pass the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD) exam as they provide an additional liability option for professionals who want their Therapy Dog to work with them.

Maggie and her dog Dorothy are also registered through ATD, but in addition she pursued certification through Texas State University‘s Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy. A program started by Dr. Elizabeth Kjellstrand Hartwig, LMFT-S, LPC-S, RPT-S—a colleague from Maggie’s PhD program.

When we discussed her future plans with her pup Jovie, Maddie shared with me that she was able to pursue an Animal-Assisted Social Work certificate from Slippery Rock University.

Additional AAT programs and certificates that I’ve uncovered through our conversations include:

This isn’t a long list but it is a thoughtful list in that it was generated by conversations with those I know who have done careful research in this space.

P.S. If you know of additional programs, I would love to hear about them.

3. It’s important to know the risks of Canine Assisted Therapy.

Notice that in the last point I mentioned that it is recommended to complete training in AAT before involving your dog in your work. Working with dogs brings a new level of liability to your services and it’s important to be informed.

In addition to legal concerns, insurance, and updated consent forms, you’ll also want to make sure that your relationship with your dog is rock solid and that you know what it looks like when they are stressed.

Bringing your dog to work with you means that you will be balancing your dog’s needs with your client’s needs, and, as you can probably imagine, that won’t always be easy.

Pursuing specialized training in AAT will allow you to think through the areas of risk involved in addition to being able to show your ethics and licensing boards that you’ve received sufficient training in this area.

The trainings I’ve personally encountered in this space have also been great resources for interventions that involve your dog and considerations for what to do when your dog isn’t feeling up to working that day

One of the trainings I completed included how to help your clients with their grief when your dog dies—I get it, that’s not something we want to think about. But you won’t be the only one processing the loss.

At the end of the day, bringing your dog to work can be benficial for your clients and for your dog, but it is important to know what you are getting both of you into and to remember that above all you are your dog’s #1 advocate.

I want to hear about your journey!

Even if you are just getting started, I would love to get to know you and hear about your journey to becoming a Therapy Dog team with your pup. Please feel free to reach out at @therapydogtalk and say hello. 🙂

If you are interested in learning more about Therapy Dogs, please check out my podcast Therapy Dog Talk.

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