Dog-assisted psychotherapy is a unique field that is quickly gaining attention and popularity, where therapy dogs are incorporated into counseling sessions. The focus is on mental health and on the complexities and depth of the therapy. Therapists are specially trained and so are the dogs. Therapists usually own the dog or they use a dog that is at home in the therapy facility and are trained to be a handler.
Therapy sessions often take place both indoors and outdoors and can be a mix of therapist-directed interventions and free interactions between dog and human, depending on the needs of the client and the aim of the therapy. The concept can be adapted to most styles of counseling.
Dog-assisted therapy could include walking a dog, grooming, teaching it new tricks, petting and cuddling, playing with the dog, creating an obstacle-course, doing artwork of or with the dog, watching the animal while discussing for example body-language and non-verbal communication and many other creative activities.
The dog-assisted psychotherapist takes responsibility for managing the safety and well-being of both the dog and the client. Their specialised training allows them to understand behavioural changes and take into account the emotional well-being, needs, desires, strengths and challenges of dog and client. Dog-assisted psychotherapy has the exceptional benefit of being able to address feeling, thinking and behaving all in one intervention. The interactions with the dog bring out authentic feelings and behaviours, which can then be processed during the session.
There are many reasons why a dog might be included in a counseling session. The interaction with dogs is very helpful in reducing the symptoms of stress, like increased heart-rate and blood-pressure, and allows the client to feel less anxious, calmer and more able to engage in the therapy and in their own process. Dogs are affectionate, non-judgemental, and empathic and they have unconditional acceptance and love towards humans. This allows the client to feel safe, comfortable and accepted during sessions. This encourages a positive therapeutic relationship and may lead to more openness and disclosures. This increased bonding with the dog and the therapist can also motivate the client to carry on with the therapy and engage with it more fully. The motivation, fun and energy a dog can bring to a session could be especially helpful for clients who have previously had unsuccessful attempts in psychotherapy.