Courtesy The Los Angeles Psychologist
Dr. Linda Bennett is a licensed Clinical and Educational Psychologist in private practice in Orange County, California. She incorporates a certified therapy dog in the implementation of a patient’s psychological treatment plan. According to Dr. Bennett, “Not only do these small, gentle, and well-trained dogs lend themselves to feelings of approachability and nurturance, but the research has demonstrated animal contact increases oxytocin, a hormone in our bodies that makes us feel safe and loved.”
- How did you become interested in working in the field of animal assisted therapy?
I was raised on a Basque sheep ranch in central California and have loved animals all my life. While I have always had family pets, I developed a professional interest in the field of Animal Assisted Psychotherapy many years ago and have followed this burgeoning area of research with great interest and fascination. Like many of my colleagues, the press of full time practice, along with raising a family, made it difficult for me to pursue the necessary training and commitment to become certified in Animal Assisted Psychotherapy until after my own children were raised and I had a bit more discretionary time as I moved from full time to part time practice.
2. There is a great deal of confusion over what constitutes a “therapy” animal. Can you explain to us the different types/levels of certification and the resulting rights/privileges.
There are two main categories of dogs who are trained to help humans -service dogs and therapy dogs. Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks to support an individual with a disability (including, but not limited to physical, psychiatric, intellectual, developmental, and sensory disorders). Service dogs can be further sub-categorized as professional partners with law enforcement, fire, military, search and rescue, and U.S. Customs. Once properly trained and certified, all of these animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allowing them full access to all public buildings/transportation/resources within the community. In contrast, a therapy dog is specifically trained as a therapeutic agent to provide emotional support to a variety of individuals in various settings (including, but not limited to educational institutions, hospitals/rehabilitation facilities, retirement homes and private practices). At this point in time, therapy dogs are not protected by ADA laws and access to public buildings/transportation is at the discretion of the individual(s) in charge. Lastly, it is important to remember not every dog has the temperament to be a “working dog,” whether in the capacity of a therapy or service animal.
- Is there a process for the human who handles the therapy animal to also get certified? If so, what is involved in that?
Yes, and one I would encourage my colleagues to consider if they are interested in incorporating a therapy animal in to their work. In my case, around the same time I adopted Simba and Nala in 2014 and started the dogs in their independent training and their Pet Partners Therapy Dog Certification process, I also enrolled in a year long post-graduate certification program at the University of Denver (DU), Graduate School of Social Work, Institute of Human-Animal Connection. Both the dogs and I accomplished our certification goals in 2015 and I have found the combination of the DU coursework and the canine socialization and therapy dog training to be invaluable in educating and equipping me to become a “dual handler.” As a dual handler, I had to learn how to simultaneously prioritize the therapeutic needs of the patient while ensuring the dog has the necessary training to respond accordingly in a given therapeutic interaction and also act as the dog’s advocate during the session. Clinical psychologists or other licensed mental health professional who desire to conduct Animal Assisted Psychotherapy (AAP) must master the complexities of the dual handler psychotherapist role.
- How do you feel your practice has benefited from working with therapy dogs?
Therapy dogs are truly “social lubricants,” allowing children, adolescents, and adults to lower their defenses more rapidly in the therapeutic environment. While the U.S. military first promoted therapy dogs for psychiatric patients in 1919, most recent research has demonstrated AAP can increase rapport in the therapeutic relationship, enhance and ease the therapeutic process and building of trust, and support very specific therapeutic goals in the patient’s treatment plan. In addition, for my younger patients, I have developed a set of thematic-based sentence completion worksheets written through Simba’s and Nala’s “voices” allowing those children to confide more directly to the therapy dogs rather than solely to me, as the clinician
- What are the challenges associated with working with a therapy dog?
In all candor, I found it to be a demanding learning curve, both in terms of upgrading my own specialty training and in terms of the time, devotion, and expense of training Simba and Nala to work within my practice. For me, it has been very important to become as skilled and knowledgeable about this subspecialty as I have with any other postgraduate training I have pursued during my 32-year career. I did not want to just bring a “family pet” into the office and hope for the best, so investing these two years in working toward “dual” competency, for both myself and the dogs, has been an essential and energizing experience.
- How do you teach your patients to work with the dog?
As part of my DU Final Capstone Project, I developed an iPhoto in-service training book entitled “Healing Paws,” which walks through the expectations of having contact with Simba or Nala. It traces the dogs’ development and training, teaches the patient how the dogs will interpret their body language and vocalizations, and discusses the ways in which the dogs are trained to interact with patients. I have stuffed animal replicas of Simba and Nala for the younger patients to practice with prior to their first contact with one of the real dogs.
- Are there any populations for which using a therapy dog is particularly useful? Or contraindicated?
When I first considered becoming certified in Animal Assisted Psychotherapy, I was thinking mostly of how canine co-therapists could serve as a social and therapeutic lubricant for my child and adolescent patients; however, I quickly learned the majority of my adult patients also desired one of the dogs to be present in their sessions. The dogs become a soothing presence as well as a supportive one. Often, as a patient shows sadness or grief, the dog will come to his/her side. Simba, the first of the two dogs to be certified, has become particularly adept at reading and responding to human emotion. Contraindications include any patient with a dog allergy or prior dog trauma, which has not yet been resolved, as well as any patient who is not able to self-regulate their emotions to a degree that it frightens the dog.
- If a psychologist reading this article would like to get an animal certified or become a provider of animal-assisted psychotherapy, what steps would you advise them to take? What resources are available to them?
If you want to adopt Animal Assisted Psychotherapy as a subspecialty in your practice, I would strongly advocate a dual process whereby you, as the clinician, become educated through a formal post-graduate program and your dog becomes trained and certified through Pet Partners or another certification organization. Remember, as a professional psychologist first, you owe it to your patient population to ensure that you are well-versed in animal assisted psychotherapies and that those methods create a “value-added” component to each patient’s treatment plan.
You can reach Dr. Bennett at: Dr.LifurBennett@gmail.com or (949) 215-0066