What is Animal Assisted Psychotherapy (AAP)? The simple definition is the incorporation of pets as therapeutic agents into the counseling process; however, it is not that simple when done correctly. Therapists engaged in the practice of AAP must complete additional training in the area of Animal Assisted Psychotherapy per the American Counseling Association (ACA) to be considered competent in this technique. The most common way is for therapists to work in partnership with their own animal, which has been through significant training and evaluated as appropriate for this work. Often dogs are certified through organizations such as Pet Partners or Therapy Dogs of Vermont. Clinicians may receive additional training through continuing education either in person or online.
The strong and healthy bond demonstrated between the therapist and pet can contribute greatly to the therapeutic process, especially by reassuring clients that the therapist can be trusted because the client observes positive interactions between the animal and therapist. Based on case studies, including animals in therapy sessions is calming and soothing and it has helped many people feel more comfortable with and involved in treatment. An example of this is an article from NPR that discussed many reasons why animals are thought to benefit human health. For those who are comfortable and happy in the presence of an animal, having a nonjudgmental, accepting companion along the path to recovery can mean the difference between frustration and hope.
After the tragic events at Harwood in October 2016, we witnessed firsthand the power of the human animal bond. The human animal bond is defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association as, “A mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.
Animal Assisted Psychotherapy may also be used in a group format, which has become popular at WCMHS. For the last four years, adolescents have been going to Random Rescue, a dog and cat rescue in Williamstown, as volunteers to work with the rescue dogs, cats and rabbits in a therapeutic group setting. During this time, the benefits to the rescue animals and the adolescents have been significant. The animals are being socialized and taught appropriate behaviors, which facilitates their adoption. In addition, the animals are learning to trust humans since many come from abusive or neglectful situations, high kill shelters, are local strays or owner relinquished animals. Often, the animals are afraid and lacking in the areas of trust, training and socialization. Currently, the groups are being co-facilitated by Dianne Bouchard and Brian Paton. Dianne also co-facilitates a group with the staff of C.h.O.I.C.E Academy. Random Rescue is always accepting donations, and they currently have two dogs that need extensive surgery and have many cats and kittens for adoption. Please check out their website for more information and ways to help, donate, or adopt.
The adolescents in the groups are gaining self-esteem, reducing anxiety and depressive symptoms, while increasing their trust, empathy, social skills and teamwork skills. They are also learning to communicate with one another, their peers and adults and are able to work on their problem solving abilities. Because many children, teens and adults enjoy working with animals, animal-assisted psychotherapy can be particularly beneficial for individuals who are resistant to treatment or have difficulty accessing their emotions or expressing themselves in talk therapy.
WCMHS is now offering some individual Animal Assisted Psychotherapy slots for adolescents who are currently in crisis and involved in the Access Program. Dianne Bouchard and her rescue dog, Finnegan are providing these services. Finnegan was pulled from a Texas shelter when he was an hour away from euthanasia and transported to Random Rescue. Finnegan is currently in training for his certification as a therapy dog. Dianne has received additional in person training in Animal Assisted Psychotherapy at Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado. Dianne is currently completing an online course in AAP as well as two specialized online courses, utilizing AAP for clients who have experienced trauma and for suicidal and self-injuring clients. For more information regarding AAP, please contact Dianne at firstname.lastname@example.org or 229-0591.
Written September 2017
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