Dog-assisted therapists use direct contact with the animal as part of their treatment plans and therapy sessions for clients and patients. They are often physical or mental health care professionals who use dogs to enhance and support their comprehensive treatment plans. Trained therapy dogs are integrated appropriately into the therapy sessions and are supervised while interaction with the patient takes place.
The goals of the therapy session will determine, whether the dog is there to provide affection and physical contact, increase physical mobility through direct handling, ease anxiety issues, provide a topic for conversation or simply give the client or patient an incentive to attend therapy sessions.
Dog-assisted therapy programs are mostly used by
- Psychiatrists or psychologists providing counseling services. Dogs are great ice-breakers when clients or patients and therapists first get to know each other. The presence of a dog in a setting might make the client or patient feel more comfortable and relaxed. It might also provide an incentive to attend sessions regularly and continue the therapy.
- School counsellors and teachers. Dogs can help school counselors connect with students and make it easier for students to approach a school counselor when needed. Dogs can also help to improve self-esteem and build cognitive skills. Therefore they are also sometimes brought into the classroom by teachers, especially learning support teachers.
- Therapists that work in care for the elderly often use dog-assisted therapy to raise the spirits of their patients and reduce fear and anxiety. Dog-assisted therapy has been proven to be very helpful for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s and is used widely in nursing homes.
- Social workers who specialise in dog-assisted social work. This is a relatively new area and is used for example in rehabilitation and education. The special bond that people can make with a dog are often an important catalyst for recovery from physical or emotional trauma. Therapy dogs are often taken to disaster sites to provide comfort and solace to those traumatised by violent events.
- Speech therapists. Dog-assisted speech therapists work with trained therapy dogs that help their patients, who are often children, to build their confidence, reduce fear and anxieties, experience unconditional acceptance, strengthen their sense of emotional and physical safety and build healthy attachments.
- Occupational therapist. There are so far only a few occupational therapist who make use of the benefits a dog-supported therapy can provide. They often work with the patient so they are able to care for and take responsibility for the well-being of the dog.
Other professionals who might use trained therapy dogs to support and enhance their therapy program are physical therapists, recreational therapists and nurses.
Dog-assisted therapist may be working in hospitals, mental health facilities, prisons, occupational or physical therapy centres, schools, surgeries, private health care practises or their own private practises.