DiMaggio "Gio" the dog standing on a rock looking cute dressed in a bowtie and striped shirt
April 19, 2023

How Animals are Changing the Therapy Game

You may have heard the term “Therapy Animal”, but how much do you know about their role in the world of mental health care? As Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) becomes more mainstream, it is important that we learn their role, training, and the benefits of the animal-human bond.

First things first, let’s differentiate the titles of working animals:

  • Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT): An animal who has the training of a therapy animal (provides comfort, affection to persons in crises) but is accompanied by a handler who is a mental health professional and utilizes the animal in professional therapeutic sessions.
  • Emotional Support Animal: A companion animal that provides therapeutic benefits to individuals with a mental and/or psychiatric disability; these animals are NOT pets, (handlers with Anxiety, PTSD, or other psychiatric disabilities).
  • Service Animal: An animal who is trained to work and/or perform tasks that directly relate to their handlers’ medical needs. These animals are NOT pets, (handlers with vision or other physical impairments, seizure disorders, Autism, etc.).
  • Therapy Animals: Animals specifically trained to provide comfort and affection to people suffering from mental disorders/episodes. Animals handler can be a volunteer with no mental health training (visits hospitals, etc.).
  • Working Animal: Animals who perform specific tasks at an expert level, (detection animals or search and rescue animals).

I first knew that Gio was special when I was working with a client who was in extreme crisis. Gio allowed this client to pick him up and he just snuggled in and worked his magic! The client was able to calm themselves and engage in a therapeutic conversation.

From that moment, Gio and I engaged in multiple levels of training, and he was able to get certifications in 3 levels of Canine Good Citizenship. As the handler, I engaged in courses to teach me the skills to professional handle and engage with a therapy animal. As a licensed social worker, I have completed the coursework to be a certified Animal Assisted Intervention Professional.

DiMaggio "Gio" the dog with his blue therapy vest on

The animal-human bond has been proven unique and therapeutic. According to a 2020 article from Medical News Today, the benefits of Animal Therapy and mental health can include:

  • decreasing anxiety and stress
  • decreasing perceptions of pain
  • reducing feelings of fear or worry
  • increasing feelings of social support
  • provided motivation, stimulation, and focus

AAT is more than dogs! Cats, horses, birds, rabbits, have all been known to engage in the therapeutic process. And it is more than mental health; AAT has proven benefits with physical and occupational therapy among others. I have personally found that having Gio with me (in-person or through telehealth) can help the client relax – his antics and super cute face allow people to feel comfortable and calm. Although the concept of AAT is just starting to gain traction, I believe very soon it will become standard practice!

Written by: Melissa Mendez



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