Dogs in Counseling? 7 Tips for Therapists

Can counselors bring their dogs to work? Yes! My goal as a therapist is to include my dog in counseling sessions with clients. If you’re a counselor, therapist or psychologist who wants “bring your dog to work”, you’ll find my research helpful.

Individual, family, and even group counseling sessions can be more effective and powerful with pet therapy dogs. Dogs – and other domesticated animals such as rabbits, pigs and even small ponies – are known to improve therapist-client relationships. Dogs and other pets encourage a stronger social and emotional connection. They give clients something to focus on, talk about, and even immediately bond with.

Unless, of course, your client is afraid of dogs! And that is the first tip for therapists who want to bring their dogs to work: make sure your client isn’t scared of animals or allergic to pet dander. Another issue to consider is if your client has dealt with guilt or grief due to rehoming or putting a dog to sleep. The last thing you want to do is trigger a client’s traumatic memories. That said, however…digging up past pain can be one of the healthiest ways to heal.

The unconditional love and warmth of a therapy dog can help clients feel relaxed and accepted, which makes them more willing to open up to counselors. This can improve counseling sessions and help with emotional and psychological healing. Those are the benefits of bringing your dog to work as a therapist.

7 Things Therapists Need to Know About Dogs at Work

These considerations will protect you as a counselor, your client as a patient, and your dog as co-therapist. The best thing is to talk to a counselor or psychologist who is actually bringing their dog to work, or who has used therapy dogs in the past. Getting the personal experience is more valuable than this research.

My dog Georgie (photo below) is a terrier mix from the SPCA. To learn more about dog breeds, read What Your Dog Breed Reveals About Your Personality.

1. Your certifications as a counselor who uses therapy dogs

How to Include Your Dog in Counseling Sessions
My dog, Georgie

You need to ensure that you as a “dog therapist” and your dog are certified by a reputable therapy dog program. This depends on your city, region, state or province.

“Counselors need to find a dog handler who works with their genre of client,” says Mia Carter, a certified therapy dog handler who created The Sick Dog Blog. “Different therapy dogs are suited to different types of therapy. For instance, I do not work with children; other handlers only work with children.”

Carter explains that some handlers specialize in working with clients with developmental disabilities only, or mental health patients only. And, a few dog handlers specialize in working with patients with dog phobias (this takes a very special dog due to the intense fear that clients experience).

2. “Borrowing” a trained therapy dog

Not all counselors use their own dogs in therapy sessions. Their own dogs may be unsuitable, too old, or simply happier at home. Many counselors use therapy dogs trained by professional handlers who are specifically focused on dogs-in-counseling sessions. These dog handlers don’t always have dogs available, and even have policies that affect how often dogs go to work.

“Due to travel and scheduling issues, most therapy dog handlers will only schedule in ‘blocks,’” says Carter. “I have a four hour minimum; many have a six or eight hour minimum. So, depending on the handler’s policy, you may need to schedule several clients in a row.”

Also, most dog handlers – particularly the more unique therapy dog specialties, such as phobia work — book up weeks in advance. If you’re using a professional therapy dog in counseling, you need to schedule in advance. And, you need to know your clients.

3. Your counseling practice (public, private, self-employed?)

If you’re a counselor in private practice, you won’t need to check with your employer. However, if you share an office or even a floor with people, you may need to inquire about the building’s animal policies. If you’re a therapist in a hospital, university, public or private school, prison, or other organization you have to talk to Human Resources before you include a therapy dog into your counseling session.

Whether or not you’re a counselor in private or public practice, you should also review your insurance coverage.

4. Your colleagues and office staff

Even if your employer welcomes pet therapy dogs, check with your colleagues and assorted office staff. Are any of your colleagues allergic to dogs? Afraid of them? Opposed to bringing dogs to work? These factors can affect the counseling sessions and even destroy the effectiveness of dog therapy.

5. The city, state, or provinces regulations on therapy dogs at work

Different states or provinces have different regulations for animals, animal control, and pets in office or hospital settings. Check with your city and/or province to ensure therapy dogs are legally allowed in your counseling sessions.

6. Your counseling or professional association’s rules on animal therapy

Most therapists and counselors belong to a general governing body, such as the American Counseling Association. If you want to bring your or another person’s dog to work, contact your professional association first. Ask about insurance, guidelines, and possible risk factors.

7. Your client’s needs and comfort level

It’s important to remember that not everyone experiences the same benefits of pet therapy. Even members of the same family might have very different reactions to a counselor with a dog in the session. Not only should you make sure the clients knows about your dog before the first session, you should also draw up the necessary paperwork. Information and a disclaimer should be included on the client-counselor contract, which the client should sign before the first therapy session.

Also, make sure that the method of counseling you’re using with a client is conducive to having a dog present. Some types of counseling, such as EMDR therapy, may not be as effective with a dog in the session. It depends on many different factors – including the dog itself.

For therapists and counselors, the most difficult part of pet therapy may be preparing to bring the dog to work. But once everything is in place, the benefits of pet therapy for both counselors and clients may outweigh the difficulties.

For more information on including your dog in counseling sessions, read Dogs in Psychotherapy. For over thirty years, the psychologist Rosa van Almen has been using therapy dogs in her doctor’s office for behavioral therapy. She uses patient case studies to describe how dogs can aid psychotherapy. She also shares valuable tips that outline what you need to take into consideration before using dogs in your counseling sessions. Step by step, Dogs in Psychotherapy shows counselors how to successfully implement working with dogs as co-therapists in psychotherapy.

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3 thoughts on “Dogs in Counseling? 7 Tips for Therapists”

  1. Hi Ellen,
    I didn’t end up becoming a counselor who brings her therapy dog to work! I finished my MSW, did two counseling internships, and decided I’d rather keep writing full-time. I did know a therapist who included her dog Angel in counseling…but Angel died and I’m no longer in touch with the therapist.
    I hope you find more detailed, in-depth information on including a therapy dog in your office. I know this blog post is sparse, and wish I could had more to offer.
    If you find any helpful websites, organizations, books or resources for counselors about including dogs in therapy sessions, please feel free to share them here.
    All good things,

  2. Hi Laurie,

    I am a counselor just looking into having a therapy dog in my office.
    How is it going?

    Ellen Dumer, LCPC
    Bel Air, MD