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Animal-Assisted Therapy class – getting started.

Whenever my AATEA class (Animal-Assisted Therapy, Education, Activities) posts for enrollment, Boo lap sit visit MaryknollI get emails and phone calls from people interested in visiting with their dog, but not sure where to start, or what is required to become an animal-assisted therapy team.

Most animal-assisted therapy teams will test and register with a national organization like Pet Partners. They may also look for a local group like HEART Programs or Angels on a Leash (in my area—other areas will have different local groups).

The larger national organizations will typically be the ones to test the team, register them, and provide workshops, protocols, and insurance, while the local organizations often help individual teams more easily find local places to visit, but they too may require their own evaluation before teams can join them.

In the seventeen-plus years I’ve been teaching animal-assisted therapy classes, testing teams, and holding workshops for Pet Partners, I have encountered less than a dozen teams who did not do any training with their dogs before enrolling in the AATEA class or taking the Pet Partners evaluation.

In short, if you have a dog you’d like to visit with as a therapy dog, start training classes as soon as you can. Find a trainer familiar with the requirements of the national organization you’re interested in registering with, and who has a good working knowledge of the finer points of behavior modification. Almost every visiting dog I have ever trained or tested has at least one area that will require a little behavior modification to help them be solid at this work and to keep them happily working for years.

For many teams the evaluation is the main hurdle they focus on, but it is only a snapshot of the team’s skill/aptitude. Here is a clip from Boo’s last Pet Partners evaluation (note that Boo was almost completely blind in this and the video below).

Even once a team passes an evaluation, to be a good solid visiting team, handlers and their dogs will need more skills than tested for on most national evaluations and A-Dog-Named-Boo-Smallhandlers will need an understanding of the visiting nuances that change with different populations and facilities. I covered many of these details in my book A Dog Named Boo.

Any class that prepares you to become a visiting team will, usually, guide you in the necessary skills for an evaluation, but should be as, if not more, focused on the additional visiting skills necessary for successful visiting. It should teach the handler tips to be the best advocate for their dog, for example:

  • Reading and managing their dog’s stress on a visit
  • Guiding a client in how to appropriately pet their dog
  • How to best navigate the various environments and interpersonal interactions they and their dog will encounter with different populations in a variety of facility
  • Different techniques that allow the best interactions between the client and dog. We see a number of these skills in this video where Boo is visiting the retired sisters at Maryknoll. A few of those skills are:
    • Positioning
    • Walk-alongs
    • Boo’s famous lap sitting for sisters with limited reach
    • And more

The Three Dogs Animal-Assisted Therapy Education and Activities class is like college level training for you and your dog. Here are a couple teams from the Fall 2015 class enjoying the last day of mock visits with some lovely girl scouts.

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