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New Mexico State University
New Mexico State University

Animal-Assisted Therapy



Historically, animals have played a role in programs designed specifically to help people.  For example, in the late 18th century, the York Retreat in England, a residential facility for mentally disturbed patients, utilized a carefully planned program requiring residents to take responsibility for the care of animals as an aspect of their therapy.  In 1963, Dr. Boris Levinson brought attention to the psychological profession of the need for research on the therapeutic use of animals and wrote extensively of his own child clinical practice utilizing his dog in the book, “Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy.”  Since the writing of his book, much research has been conducted both on human-animal interactions in general and specifically, on programs that utilize animals as an integral part of the therapy or treatment designed to heal the physical, emotional/mental and spiritual concerns of clients.

Over the past 30 years, studies have confirmed that animals have a definitely positive impact on both human physical and psychological health.  A few examples of the positive treatment effect of animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapies include the following:  decrease stress and lower the blood pressure of heart patients (Friedmann, Katcher, Lynch & Thomas, 1982), address loneliness and social needs of the elderly (Crowley-Robinson, Fenwick & Blackshaw, 1996), provide rehabilitation for psychiatric inpatients (Beck, Seraydarian & Hunter, 1986; Holcomb & Meacham, 1989), decrease depressive symptoms and anxiety in college students (Folse, Minder, Aycock & Santana, 1994; Wilson, 1991), rehabilitate prisoners (Katcher, Beck & Levine, 1989) and enhance physical movement, self-esteem, feelings of competency and increase social confidence in disabled children and adults (Fitzpatrick & Tebay, 1997; Nathanson, 1998).  Additionally, clinicians have found animal-assisted therapy to be useful in the treatment of symptomology associated with Alzheimer’s, posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociation, and childhood sexual abuse.  Due to the positive effect people gain from their experience with animals, a number of university counseling centers have begun to integrate animal-assisted therapy in their services for college students. 

Purpose of the Program

Animal-assisted therapy has been defined as a “goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process.  AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of his/her profession” (Delta Society, 2000).

Given that an animal-assisted intervention program is goal-directed, the NMSU Counseling Center AAI program would serve several purposes with the college student clientele (please note that the following list is not an exhaustive identification of the possible therapeutic goals of the AAI program):

  1. To provide physiological relief from academic and personal stress, as evidenced in decreased heart rates and blood pressure and anxiety.
  2. To assist in the establishment of therapeutic rapport between the client and therapist or between group members if used in a group setting.  AAI can provide an emotionally safe, non-threatening mode of communication in the initial therapy sessions. 
  3. To encourage clients who have low self-esteem, confidence and social skills to have a safe outlet for the provision of an outward focus—rather than focusing solely on themselves and their failings in the therapeutic hour.
  4. Clients who have histories of sexual, physical or emotional abuse or neglect might bond more readily and easily with an animal initially as well as have the opportunity to experience unconditional acceptance.
  5. To provide an opportunity for physical contact and touch with another being where the touch is safe, non-threatening and soothing when a client is emotionally distraught.
  6. To decrease feelings of isolation and alienation.
  7. To provide a safe, temporary diversion when dealing with emotionally intense issues.
  8. For clients who have witnessed the abuse of animals (which is not uncommon in abusive and violent homes) or possibly for those who have abused an animal, to have a supervised opportunity to learn empathy for another being, provide nurturance to the animal or have an opportunity to discuss the past abuse as it relates to their current functioning.  Additionally, if a client experienced the trauma of witnessing the abuse of an animal, the presence of an animal in itself, can provide an opportunity for healing interactions.
  9. To facilitate outreach and consultation services provided by Counseling Center staff for various purposes (e.g., giving information about Center services, facilitating discussions about various psychological concerns, etc).

Guidelines for the Therapist-Companion Animal Team

Prior to beginning the program, the NMSU Counseling Center staff has met to discuss (including any reservations or concerns) and approve the AAI program and how it will be conducted.

All applicable public health policies or guidelines required by the State of New Mexico and applicable animal control codes (Dona Ana County Animal Control codes) are identified, updated and followed (see attached).

Therapists and animals used in the Counseling Center’s Animal-Assisted Therapy Program would be registered through Therapy Dogs International, Inc. or as “Pet Partners” through the Delta Society.  Therapy Dogs International, Inc (TDI) was founded in 1976 and has the following guidelines for certification: 

  1. All therapy dogs must be screened by a veterinarian and are tested and evaluated by a certified TDI evaluator.
  2. The dog must be a minimum of one year of age and have a temperament that is appropriate for therapy work. 
  3. The evaluation consists of a temperament evaluation that included the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test (CGC) as well as an evaluation of the dog’s behavior around people using medical equipment such as wheelchairs, crutches, IV poles and so on.

Pet Partners, formerly named Delta Society, was formed in 1977 and is an international, not-for-profit organization.  A major goal of the Pet Partners is to bring animal-assisted therapy to more people who are in need of such therapy.  In order to be registered in the Pet Partner program, the therapist (handler) would have to fulfill the following requirements:

  1. Complete the Pet Partners Team Training Course.
  2. Complete the Volunteer Review (a test of the knowledge and skills required to be an effective Pet Partner).
  3. Have the animal’s health screened by a veterinarian.  The animal must meet the following health requirements:  current on all vaccinations, free of any signs of ill health, is house-trained, free of internal and external parasites, is at least one year old (except “pocket pets” such as rabbits, guinea pigs, etc.), and is cleaned and groomed within 24 hours prior to the visit.
  4. Pass the Pet Partners Skills Test (PPST)—a test designed to assess the “good behavior” skills of the animal-handler team.
  5. Pass the Pet Partners Aptitude Test (PPAT—a temperament screening to determine if the handler and animal have the ability, capacity, desire and potential for participating in AAA/AAI programs.  This aspect of the test assesses the reliability (is the handler’s training with the animal and the animal’s behavior sociable, controllable at all times and predictably safe in a variety of settings and with a variety of people) of the handler/animal team.  Both the PPST and PPAT are conducted by a Delta Society-certified Animal Evaluator.

**All interested clients will receive a description of the Animal-Assisted Therapy Program (such as what has been written in this proposal) and only those clients who are not allergic to or fearful of animals and who have a desire to be with an animal during the course of their therapy will participate.  Those clients who are allergic or fearful of animals or who just choose to not participate will not be exposed to the animal during the therapy services they receive while at the Counseling Center.

Beyond Certification–Therapist Knowledge and Training

In addition to being certified and prior to integrating animal-assisted interventions as an adjunct to therapy at the NMSU Counseling Center, all therapists must be competent in the application of this intervention.  All therapists will have consulted with supervisors and consultants (i.e., Director of the Center), who are knowledgeable and trained in the application of AAI to determine their readiness to integrate AAI into their therapy work with student clients.

It is expected that therapists will be aware of the best practices of AAI and will have read the most recent edition of the Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, edited by Aubrey H. Fine and any other relevant professional articles and research studies pertaining to the application of AAI (see attached reference list).  Once an initial knowledge base is obtained regarding the application of AAI, it is strongly recommended that therapists continue to educate themselves in order to be up-to-date in the research, theory and practice of AAI.   Therapists are familiarized with the standards of practice, ethical standards, and concerns related to the welfare of the animal pertaining to the practice of AAI (Delta Society, 1996; Serpell, Copppinger, Fine and Peralta, 2010; The Israeli Association of Animal Assisted Psychotherapy, 2007).  

Therapists need to be attentive to both client and animal welfare and provide informed consent (see attached informed consent form) to every client wishing to have AAI integrated into their therapy work at the Center.  Center guidelines for the application of AAI require participating therapists to appropriately identify client presenting concerns and personality styles that lend themselves to the use of AAI and defer using AAI when it would not be appropriate (e.g., if the client is psychotic, clearly agitated, does not want an animal present).  Additionally, no therapy animals will be present in intake sessions which would be prior to the opportunity to provide informed consent regarding AAI and in determining the appropriateness of AAI as an intervention with a given client.  The application of AAI is expected to be aligned with the client treatment goals (as determined in conjunction with the client and therapist) and will be documented in the client’s progress notes.  Integrating AAI into outreach programs are possible but prior to doing so, there is a need for this to be thought through thoroughly and preferably with consultation.  Potential high risk situations such as utilizing AAI as an adjunct to responding to a crisis on campus must be cleared with the Director of the Center.