How to Include Your Dog in Counseling Sessions – Tips for Therapists

how do I make my dog a pet therapy dog
My dog, Georgie, who I hope will be my co-counselor during my therapy sessions.

My long-term career goal is to include my dog in my counseling sessions with clients. If you’re a therapist who wants to use your dog in couseling, you’ll find my research helpful!

Counseling can be greatly enhanced with pet therapy dogs; these animals are known to improve the therapist-client relationship by encouraging a strong social and emotional connection.

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 therapists. This can improve counseling sessions and help with emotional and psychological healing.

However, before therapists can include a pet therapy dog in counseling sessions, they must consider some very important issues.

The Therapy Dog Handler’s Certifications

Counselors need to ensure the therapy dog handler and the dog are certified by a reputable therapy dog program (which varies by region).

“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).

Scheduling a Therapy Dog

Sometimes counselors assume therapy dogs are easily available for counseling sessions. However, Carter explains that this is not the case for most handlers.

“Due to travel and scheduling issues, most therapy dog handlers will only schedule in ‘blocks,’” she says. “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.” Advanced planning is a prerequisite for effective pet therapy!

The Therapist’s Employer or Organization – Private or Public Practice?

Counselors in private practice may not need to worry about checking with their employer (because they’re self-employed). But, therapists in hospitals, universities, public or private schools, prisons, or other organizations must talk with Human Resources before bringing therapy dogs into their sessions.

Therapists should also review their insurance coverage (for example, who is liable if the client sues?).

The Therapist’s Colleagues and Office Staff

Even if the employer welcomes pet therapy dogs, counselors should also check with their colleagues and office staff. Are any colleagues allergic to dogs? Afraid of them? Opposed to bringing dogs to work? These factors can affect the counseling sessions and decrease the effectiveness of pet therapy.

City, State, or Provincial Regulations on Therapy Dogs

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

The Therapist’s Counseling or Professional Association

Most therapists and counselors belong to a general governing body, such as the American Counseling Association. Therapists who wish to work with therapy dogs should ask their professional association about insurance, guidelines, and possible risk factors.

And, it’s important to make sure that the method of counseling is conducive to having a dog present. Some therapies, such as EMDR therapy, may not work as well with a dog in the room.

The Client’s Needs and Comfort Level

Not everyone experiences the same benefits of pet therapy! If therapists or counselors include therapy dogs, they need to inform the client before the first visit. Information and a disclaimer should be included on the client-counselor contract, which the client should sign before beginning therapy.

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 Paws & Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs.

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