A Counselor’s Best Friend: The Use of a Registered Therapy Dog in the Counseling Office

Written by Dr. Misty Ginicola

In 1962, Levinson first wrote about the potential of using service dogs as psychotherapeutic co-therapists. Although at the time, it may have seemed a strange fit, the use of dogs in the therapy environment has increased dramatically. Psychologists, social workers and counselors have utilized dogs in therapy, formally called Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT; Altschiller, 2011). As dogs have been used for multiple service professions, their utility as social and emotional beings also make them ideal for a counselor’s aide.

The significance of the human-animal bond has garnered not only clinical, but research interest. The utility of AAT has been expounded in numerous popular media outlets, case studies, grant-funded research studies and peer-reviewed publications (McCardle, McCune, Griffin, Esposito & Freund, 2010). The research has indicated that our connection with animals, particularly dogs, is historical, neurobiological, social and emotional. The research on AAT has shown strong evidence that therapy dogs are helpful for multiple populations in a variety of contexts.

Counselors in an agency setting can utilize trained, insured and registered therapy dogs in individual and group mental health settings. Using these pets in these settings has been shown to reduce stress, increase rapport, help clients to become more cognizant of emotional reactions and support resiliency in individual and group sessions (Perry, Rubinstein & Austin, 2012). Counselors who specialize in working with children or with individuals with disabilities will find that there are also multiple uses for dogs in terms of building rapport and working on specific goals, such as physical skills and social interactions (McCardle et al., 2010).

Essentially, dogs can be utilized in counseling in two main ways. First, there can be non-directive approaches where a dog is present within the therapy room, but not the main focus (Perry et al., 2012). In this method, the dog helps to build rapport with the counselor, connects emotionally to the client(s) and impacts the client or group by their presence in the environment. The second way that dogs can be utilized in the counseling environment is to make specific directives surrounding the interaction with the dog. It could be to brush the dog, teach the dog a trick, or be specifically asked to pet the dog while talking about highly emotional issues.

School counselors can also work with dogs in directive and non-directive ways within school settings (Chandler 2001). Having a therapy dog present within the counseling office can help students with academic, social and emotional goals. Although there are programs that utilize dogs for reading, to date, there is only one program that uses dogs to build social and emotional skills: the Mutt-i-grees® Curriculum which has been employed in over 2,000 schools across the country. This curriculum, which does not require a live dog in the school, uses dog-themed activities to teach kindness, compassion, understanding of feelings, understanding of others and building decision-making skills. Although the curriculum does not require a dog, many schools have brought dogs into the school environment and have found it to be an incredibly powerful tool.

Many counselors who utilize therapy dogs in their sessions have chosen to use their own pets; even though this is considered ethical and appropriate, the owner and dog need to go through a specific process before seeing clients. Therapy dogs must have an appropriate demeanor and easy temperament, be trained and tested. Using the Pet Partners® program, formerly Delta Society, the handler must attend a course (either in person or online) and pass an exam. A veterinarian must screen the dog; a trained evaluator must also test the dog’s skills and aptitude. After a formal application is reviewed, the Pet Partner® Team is registered and insured. According to the rules of Pet Partners®, you cannot specifically charge for “Animal Assisted Therapy”; therefore, it needs to remain an adjunctive, non-billed service. You can bill for your therapy sessions, but should not add a cost associated with having the therapy dog present.

As a registered Pet Partner® Therapy team with my dog Lainey, I can say that the power of the dog as a co-counselor is not overstated. Clients find solace and calm while petting Lainey, even when they are talking about something stressful. She immediately notices when someone is emotional and makes herself present to be pet or provide a much-needed hug. Although we normally have to depend on only our clinical skills to engage and build rapport, I have found that when it is appropriate and matched to the client, having Lainey in the room cuts down the time in building rapport significantly. When I have brought Lainey to school settings, children immediately find rapport with me; they are engaged, interested and ready to talk. Lainey’s innate interest in humans and her ability to make others feel calm and loved, to make them laugh and feel entertained and her desire to be of service make her a perfect co-therapist. As Bernard Williams once said, “There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”

Altschiller, D. (2011). Animal-assisted Therapy. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood.
Chandler, C., (2001). Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling and School Settings. ERIC/CASS Digest. Levinson, B. M. (1962). The dog as a ‘co-therapist.’. Mental Hygiene. New York, 4659-65.
McCardle, P., McCune, S., Griffin, J. A., Esposito, L., & Freund, L. (2010). Animals in our lives: Human-animal interaction in family, community and therapeutic settings. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company.
Perry, D., Rubinstein, D., & Austin, J. (2012). Animal-Assisted Group Therapy in Mental Health Settings: An Initial Model. Alternative & Complementary Therapies, 18(4), 181-185. doi:10.1089/act.2012.18403