Dogs On The Couch: Welfare Considerations For Animal-Assisted Therapy
Many of us know how good it feels to come home at the end of a day to a dog who can’t wait to see us. Their enthusiasm and affirmation somehow seem to make the world right again. So, it’s no surprise that people often benefit from animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Dogs, in particular, are now employed to help with a variety of health and psychosocial challenges. They participate in physical, occupational, speech, and recreational therapies.
Unfortunately, welfare considerations and standards for the animals used in AAT aren’t clearly defined. Industry-wide evaluation procedures for dogs working in therapeutic settings don’t exist. It can be all too easy to exploit animals’ good nature and sociability to their detriment. They may be forced to deal with unfamiliar settings, clients, activities, and schedules. Companion animals do not ask to participate in therapy or other forms of animal assistance. Thus, the “Do No Harm” tenet is a moral and ethical obligation for those who handle the animals.
In response to the current lack of standards for animal welfare, training, and evaluation, the researchers propose a framework on how best to determine the suitability of specific dogs for clinical settings. Implementing these can help ensure that the client population, environment, and work requirements match the dogs’ capabilities. This will promote the well-being of the dogs and prevent them from experiencing unnecessary stress and anxiety. It should also give them the opportunity to enjoy their work.
When including animals in therapy, professionals must first concern themselves with their ethical responsibilities to both clients and animals. They must also secure the necessary training and skills to handle the specialized requirements of AAT and the canine participants. This framework identifies best practices for selection, humane-based preparation and training, and ongoing evaluation.
- Handler profile – AAT professionals are typically guardians for the dogs they work with. As such, it is important to identify the handler’s lifestyle, activity level, professional and leisure interests, and dog training skill level. Creating such a profile will allow the best match between handler and dog.
- Job characteristics – This can be defined by items such as breed restrictions, client population demographics along with physical and cognitive capabilities, treatment categories, therapeutic environment, the role of the dog during therapy sessions, time requirements, and the variety of handlers. A guardian should weigh these factors to determine the best dog for the job.
- Animal profile – AAT dogs should have a robust temperament, adaptability, adequate training, secure attachment with the handler, motivation for the job, quick recovery when startled, and a desire to engage in the sessions. Other considerations include whether the dog likes to learn, their display of enjoyment of or retreat from the work, curiosity, and personal space needs. Knowing the dog’s history is invaluable as it may offer clues as to their suitability in various roles.
- Team preparation and training – Intervention plans and strategies will define the team’s training needs. However, in AAT, the most important element is a strong bond between dog and handler. Only positive and humane dog training methods are appropriate. The handler must be well versed in canine learning theory and understand how dogs communicate. Dogs need autonomy to allow them to learn on their own terms or to leave a situation in which they are not comfortable. Exposing a dog to their working environment prior to engaging them with clients will also improve their feeling of safety since they will know what to expect in that location.
- Evaluation and re-evaluation – Handlers should monitor their dogs daily for physical and emotional well-being. In addition, at least once a year, an objective third party should evaluate the dog in their work environment. Conditions should simulate the dog’s typical AAT situation in terms of clients, activities, equipment, and so forth. Re-evaluation is also needed when the dog’s work changes, such as to a new client population. Evaluation protocols should cover skills, behavior, and obedience.
This commentary offers advocates a wealth of valuable information about the growing practice of AAT. It’s clear that the field is still maturing, and part of that process means making the practice of AAT safe for dogs. Advocates can use the authors’ recommendations as a basis for proposed government rulemaking processes. They can also encourage the adoption of this or a similar framework by professional societies whose members practice AAT. Dogs can work wonders for us in so many ways, and it’s up to us to keep them safe as they go about improving our lives.