What is a ‘therapy dog’? Animal-Assisted Therapy in Psychology

What is a therapy dog and how is it different from a normal pet?

In the allied health landscape, the use of therapy dogs is referred to as Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT). AAT is an evidence-based secondary therapeutic technique involving the use of animals in sessions (most commonly dogs and horses). Psychologists for example, use AAT alongside other evidence-based techniques, like Cognitive Behaviour therapy or Behaviour Therapy.  

Research demonstrates AAT with dogs is an extremely effective tool for working with both adults and children who may have developmental disorders, mental illness, chronic health disorders or are currently in addiction recovery. There is a significant amount of research across both Psychology and Occupational Therapy research, endorsing the efficacy of AAT with individuals living with Autism Spectrum Disorder, additional to other developmental and psychosocial disorders.

Who can have a therapy dog, and how do I become a handler?

The AAT team, comprised of the handler and the dog, are both required to go through rigorous selection and training in AAT; not every team passes certification. The dogs are selected for their nature and tolerance of others (especially kids), as well as their manners and obedience. More importantly, handlers are also screened and trained to be effective in various scenarios. Dogs can be wonderful, well mannered, obedient, and great with kids - but if their trainers are not confident, they may fail their AAT certification.

Depending on how you wish to use AAT, you require post-grad qualifications. For example, allied health AAT teams require registration with AHPRA (or equivalent). There are also ‘community team’ training options for teachers, support workers, and other community workers. This training does not endorse the team to work in a ‘therapeutic capacity’, these would be teams that are visiting community services, schools or aged-care facilities for comfort and emotional support.

How can a therapy dog help promote better health outcomes?

There are so many ways a therapy dog can promote positive allied health outcomes, though here are just a few:

  • Increasing self-esteem and self-worth
  • Improving sense of purpose and motivation
  • Reducing anxiety and depression
  • Teaching emotional regulation
  • Building empathy skills
  • Reducing loneliness and isolation
  • Improving fine motor skills, strength, and balance
  • Improving interpersonal and communication skills
  • Reading and speech programs through schools and NDIS
  • Teaching self-care skills like teeth brushing, hair brushing etc
  • Promoting behavioural activation through exercise (with the AAT team, or with their family pets)

How do therapy dogs integrate with care?

Schools: AAT teams can go to schools to help children with their reading skills, empathy, social skills, rapport building, decreasing anxiety and depression. AAT teams can mingle with the students in class, facilitate pats and offer reassurance to help children relax. Children can also practice speech and reading skills whilst reading a story to the AAT team.

Aged-Care and Primary Health: When residents enter aged-care homes, many are no longer able to have or care for pets. Visiting AAT teams are very popular among this demographic, with many aged-care residents embracing the sight of a wagging tail, a pair of big brown eyes and a cold wet nose. This is especially welcomed if they are depressed, sick or withdrawn. AAT teams can have a significant impact on a patient’s day, which can have positive effects on how they feel and cope with treatment.

1:1 therapy: Like aged care, education settings and primary health, the benefits of AAT for 1:1 therapy comprise of all of the above, and more.

Tips and advice for allied health consultants supporting clients with therapy dogs

Dogs are wonderful tools to use in therapy, but we must act ethically for the benefit of the handling team and the clients we work with.

  • AAT dogs are not suitable for typical outreach work. For example, going into 3-4 different environments in one day would likely cause a very stressed dog; and stressed dogs become dangerous.
  • It is essential to complete an AAT course and gain your certification before you start using AAT – there is a lot to consider before using your dogs in AAT.
  • Ensure the course you take is certified to gain access to indemnity insurance. AAT is NOT a regulated industry in Australia (yet), but it is expected to be very soon! This does not mean there are no guidelines, AAT teams cannot do as they please, as that is incredibly unfair on our beloved canines.
  • Lead The Way (Victoria) offer great training options – there are other options out there, but they are not all appropriate. We encourage you to do your due diligence and research appropriate training options.
  • Dogs should not be ‘worked’ every day – they benefit from 2-3 days’ work a week at max; less when the weather is warmer.
  • Staffies make excellent AAT therapy dogs. They are lovable and loyal cuddle monsters that just love to be with people at all times – the perfect AAT dog!

Are there any misconceptions surrounding Therapy dogs? If so, what are these?

Yes, there are common misconceptions surrounding therapy dogs, including:

  • Therapy dogs can enter the community and be taken ‘anywhere’ (like a guide dog).  

This is one of the biggest misconceptions with AAT dogs. AAT dogs are not assistance dogs and doing this training does not provide them the opportunity to be used as such.  

  • That we can take any dog into a school or therapy room and they will be ‘therapy dogs’

This is definitely not true. AAT dogs need to be certified and continuously trained to be safe around others in a therapeutic environment. The handlers are trained to read the signs that a dog needs time out or is showing signs of fear and distress for example.

What other considerations should be noted when considering becoming an AAT team?

  • The therapy room needs to be set up in a certain way to allow the ethical work of AAT teams; increasing the safety of all involved.
  • Having an AAT certification also means access to a specific type of indemnity insurance to safeguard your clients and the AAT team against unfortunate situations. This insurance is required to use AAT ethically and appropriately.