1. What is animal assisted therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a goal directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is delivered and/or directed by health or human service providers working within the scope of their profession. Animal-assisted therapy is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, or cognitive function. Animal-assisted therapy is provided in a variety of settings, and may be group or individual in nature. The process is documented and evaluated.
2. How are therapy dogs different from service dogs, pet dogs or emotional support dogs?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines service dogs as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal who is trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. For example, some dogs are trained to pull wheelchairs, others are taught to alert to the sounds of the telephone, oven timers, alarm clocks, smoke alarms, and even a baby’s cry. Service dogs are not considered pets and they are allowed in public buildings. Formal training is not required.
Therapy dogs are handled by a trained owner and provide support to patients, clients and students. They have to pass the canine good citizen test and be well mannered. Building and public access is by invitation only.
Emotional support dogs are simply a pet dog that you own. A doctor may have written a letter of support asking that your dog be allowed to live with you, travel with you or go to work with you. Your dog can still be denied access into buildings.
So to sum it all up: service dogs assist their owner, therapy dogs are in service to clients, emotional support dogs are pets and comfort their owners.
3. What does being “certified” in animal assisted therapy mean?
There is currently no certifying body in the AAT world. Certification means you have attended a training on how to implement AAT, your dog has passed the canine good citizen test and you are getting regular AAT consultation with an AAT therapist and dog trainer. You are following the recommended AAT Competencies (attached below).
The American Kennel Club (AKC) has a list of recognized therapy dog organizations. However, these organizations are for volunteers who take dogs to hospitals, schools, libraries, etc. and they have to offer a certain number of volunteer hours and provide liability insurance. They do not train mental health providers on how to do animal assisted play therapy.
4. Where can I get more information?
For research go to:
Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling by Cynthia Chandler
Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy by Aubrey Fine
Animal Assisted Play Therapy by Rise VanFleet and Tracie Faa-Thompson
Animal Assisted Psychotherapy by Nancy Parish-Plass
For the recommended animal assisted therapy competencies go to: