Embarking on Your Animal Assisted Therapy Journey

by | March 23, 2022 | Blog

Learn how to partner with dogs in Animal Assisted Therapy

“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.

Ready to explore the world of 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 I found, 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:

Understanding the Different Facets of Therapy Dog Work

It’s important to distinguish between the two primary types of therapy dog work:

  • Animal Assisted Activities: Therapy pets bring joy by visiting settings like hospitals or assisted living facilities.
  • Animal Assisted Therapy: Animals become part of a goal-driven treatment plan, collaborating with professionals such as mental health providers or occupational therapists.

There’s also Animal Assisted Education, where therapy dogs play a role in helping students achieve their educational goals.

Navigating AAT Training and Certifications

Locating AAT training opportunities can be challenging, but there are several exceptional programs and certifications available.

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 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:

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.

If you discover more options, please share them with me!

Addressing the Risks of Canine Assisted Therapy

Before involving your dog in AAT, it’s crucial to complete proper training. Working with dogs introduces additional responsibilities and risks. Consider the following aspects:

  • Legal concerns
  • Insurance
  • Your dog’s well-being

Balancing your dog’s needs with your clients’ requirements is essential. AAT training helps you comprehend the risks, navigate various situations, and support your clients if your dog is unable to work or passes away.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. What qualifications do I need to become an AAT practitioner? While there are no universal requirements, it’s recommended to complete relevant training and certifications to provide the best services possible and address any legal or ethical concerns.
  2. How do I know if my dog is suitable for AAT work? A good therapy dog should have a calm and friendly temperament, be well-socialized, and comfortable in various environments. Your dog should also pass a therapy dog evaluation and maintain up-to-date vaccinations.
  3. What types of settings can AAT be used in? AAT is used in diverse settings, including hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, hospices, and mental health clinics.
  4. How does AAT benefit clients? AAT can improve clients’ physical, social, emotional, and cognitive functioning. It can help reduce anxiety, depression, and stress, and promote relaxation, communication, and self-esteem.
  5. Can any animal be used for AAT? While dogs are the most common AAT animals, other species like cats, horses, rabbits, and even birds have been used in therapy settings. The choice of animal depends on the clients’ needs and the specific goals of the therapy.
  6. How do I find AAT opportunities in my area? You can contact local AAT organizations, therapy dog groups, or professionals in your area who use AAT in their practice. They can provide guidance on volunteer opportunities or ways to incorporate AAT into your work.


Always remember that your dog relies on you to be their advocate. Animal Assisted Therapy can be highly beneficial for both your clients and your dog. However, it’s vital to understand what you’re committing to and prioritize your dog’s well-being.

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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