Best Practice Standards For Animal Assisted Interventions
From universities bringing therapy dogs on campus to relieve exam stress, to dogs attending one-on-one sessions with children to increase their social functioning, animal assisted interventions are becoming more popular. Animal assisted interventions are any therapies, education, or activities that involve animals, which try to improve physical, emotional, cognitive functioning of the humans they interact with. Unfortunately, these interventions are not regulated, so there are different standards across organizations.
The Lincoln Education Assistance with Dogs (LEAD) risk assessment tool provides a global standard of risk assessment for all animal assisted interventions. The goal is to provide optimal care for both the therapy recipient and the animal. This article will provide an overview of the recommendations from the LEAD risk assessment tool.
Many of the guidelines should happen before the intervention occurs. The participant must consent to receiving the intervention. They should receive safety and welfare training, including how to behave around dogs and how to recognize stress signals. They should also complete a questionnaire about allergies and phobias. Even if the participant does not report a phobia, the participant and animal should briefly meet to make sure they both feel comfortable, and to watch if any anxiety occurs.
For the dog to be fit to work, their behaviour should be assessed by external examiners. The assessment should happen in the environment the dog will be working in. They should also have annual vet appointments for vaccines, and treatment for worms, parasites, and fleas. Dogs should not have arthritis or other conditions that could cause discomfort. Therapy practitioners should create a dog welfare plan for each intervention session. This plan should include the length of time the session will occur for. There is no recommended best practice duration due to lack of research evidence, though the less time is better, with the most being 2 hours per day. The dog should always have access to water, have restroom and exercise breaks, and have a private rest area where they can be alone. The practitioner should be familiar with the dog and recognize their stress signals and body language.
Plan a meeting spot in advance, including where the dog will enter the building, and how the dog and participant will greet each other. If the location is in a school, likely a side entrance that is less busy is most appropriate. The meeting room should be well-ventilated and be disinfected after the intervention. All participants should wash their hands after interacting with the therapy dog.
During the session, there should be a Health or Education Professional present with the participant, and the practitioner should be with the dog. The practitioner should communicate the rules to the participant. These include giving the dog space, no hugging or kissing the dog, and remaining calm. Throughout the intervention, the participant and dog should always be supervised. The session should stop if the participant or dog shows signs of stress, discomfort, or tiredness.
Animal assisted interventions need to be standardized to provide optimal care for the therapy recipients and for the therapy animals. The LEAD risk assessment tool provides a way to standardize these interventions with easy to follow guidelines, and will surely be of interest to animal advocates working in this space.