I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, as animal lovers, the thought of an animal being mistreated would make any of us angry. But, what if we were mistreating our animals inadvertently? How would we know?

How do we know, for example, when we bring our therapy dogs to our client sessions that we are not causing them undue stress? When bringing dogs (or any animal) into the therapeutic milieu, considering the dogs’ welfare has to be a top priority. When we look at the treatment triad of client, therapist, and animal, equal weight on each corner of the triangle is critical.

Animal assisted therapy is different from art therapy, music therapy or play therapy in that crayons and drums are not living, sentient beings. A sandbox can sit in a room all day with kids scratching figures on it without it ever once needing a drink of water. The dogs we bring need much more. There will be days when they do not feel good, days they do not want to go to work and clients they are not comfortable being around. Paying attention to what our dogs are telling us ensures that the animal assisted intervention (AAI) sessions are not only successful, but that we are not neglecting our dogs for the sake of our clients.

Our dogs/animals did not ‘sign up’ to be a part of the therapeutic process. Dogs are not “humans with fur,” as many like to describe them. They are dogs who do dog things. They sleep…a lot. They like to play. Chew on toys.

Bentley on his way to the office

I do not have a therapy dog; I have a Bentley. He is a rescue pug/poodle mix with an under bite and does not always communicate very effectively; who loves (and that is an understatement) to ride in the car and go to the office with me. How do I know? Being a dog trainer (CPDT-KA) helps me read his body language, but the basics are pretty simple; and in the simplest of terms, it is based loosely on the Pleasure Principle. We seek pleasure, avoid pain. Dogs….animals…do the same.

Does my dog willingly do something or do I have to ‘encourage’ him? When I bring Bentley to the office, he willingly runs to the garage door, dances next to the car, hops right in, trots to the door of the building and speeds ahead of me down the hall to the office. He knows the door and stops at it, looking back at me, tongue lolling out, and panting (ok, maybe because he is a bit ‘chunky’). Once we are ‘at work,’ he greets guests at the door and lays at their feet (or on the square of light coming in from the window on the floor) during sessions.

But, he is not a therapy dog, nor will he ever be. He can be cranky and has poor communication skills. He hates to be pet on top of the head, which he will tell you with a low growl, but he will move in for more when his chin is scratched or chest rubbed (research supports that most dogs experience less stress with a chest scratch than any other part of the body). Reach for his belly and if he feels comfortable, he will roll over, but not for everyone; and everyone who comes in knows this and they respect his boundaries.

For many of my clients, he offers quite a few benefits. Research also supports the efficacy of AAI with populations such as children who often feel fewer anxiety symptoms while interacting with [registered therapy] dogs, which allows them to increase engagement with adults (Friesen, 2010; Prothmann, et al, 2006). Bentley shows many of my young clients, who do not always know what their body language looks like to outsiders, how to objectively see their own behaviors. Because it seems like he might not like everyone, when he does “go in for the scratch,” the young clients express that they feel special and privileged that Bentley trusts and likes them. My clients learn how to meet Bentley where he is, at which point we can talk about doing the same with people.

He coaxes my teen clients to sessions even when they do not want to be there. We can talk about how past people have treated Bentley and why he acts the way he does today, just like many of them. I am sure none of this surprises you. You have probably seen the same. But what we always have to do in this process, is maintain our dogs’ well-being. A client who does not have good impulse control or one who stims (self- stimulatory behaviors) wildly, might make contact with Bentley in a way he does not like or makes him uncomfortable, so I let him have his quiet time away from the session.

I do this because within the animal human partnership, it is my ethical responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of my dog. This means balancing not only the values of our profession and operating within our scopes of practice, but having a solid understanding of my dog’s needs. We have to be able to objectively review every interaction with welfare in mind (Horowitz & Bekoff, 2007). If a client is upset and really wants to hug a dog, but the dog is moving away from the client or hiding behind the therapist’s legs, the dog is sending a clear signal that he is not comfortable with the interaction. Conversely, if the dog is offering distance increasing signals (anything from tongue flicks to head turns), respecting the dog means honoring his wishes. Forcing our dogs to interact or accept a hug anyway suggests that his well-being is less important, and worse, could put him in a position where he might bite. We are the only advocates our dogs have.  And why would we want to mistreat our best friends? Instead, we can use the opportunity to discuss with the client why our dog might be uncomfortable. It demonstrates to the client that we do indeed care about everyone’s welfare.

Most practitioners depend on the principles of the human animal bond (HAB) when bringing AAIs into practice. The HAB, as defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association, is “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both” (AVMA, 1998 as cited in NG, et al 2014). The key is mutually beneficial relationship, which means the animal must benefit from the interaction as much as the humans.

O’Callaghan (2008) posited that most practitioners who practice professional therapy use AAIs with the intention of augmenting the therapeutic relationship by building rapport, increasing trust and facilitating feelings of safety. If our dog is uncomfortable or stressed, what message is that sending to our clients?

I have often heard…or seen…well-intentioned people who adopt traumatized dogs and turn them into therapy dogs because of the similarities between clients who have experienced trauma and the dogs. For some, this can work very well; however, if the dog has been traumatized and fears people, or likes to remain at home, that should be honored. Dragging him to an office where there is a lot of activity, kids reaching out to pet him or other overstimulating environments can further traumatize the dog. This is the case with a practitioner I encountered who adopted such a dog and as the dog sits in her office with an open door and a baby gate, the dozens of people who pop by each day cause the dog to tremble, bow his head down, pull his ears back, and drool excessively. It does not take a dog trainer to know that this dog is afraid. This was her way of ‘socializing’ him, by flooding him with stimuli. Obviously, this is not acceptable treatment.

A study conducted by Ng, et al (2014) showed that an hour long visit with college students in a dorm setting did not cause an increase in stress-related behaviors in registered therapy dogs. However, King, et al (2011) found that salivary cortisol levels in registered therapy dogs were higher than baseline after a 60-minute visit in a hospital setting, meaning those dogs experienced increased stress. While the reason for these differences is not yet fully understood, it is likely that the hospital environment was less predictable during the activity compared to college dormitories. Not being able to predict what might happen next is often unsettling and anxiety-provoking for humans, and most likely in dogs as well (NG, et al , 2014). Social interactions can be some of the strongest stressors for dogs (McEwen and Wingfield, 2003; NG, et al, 2014). What this means is that therapy dogs show more stress responses when interacting with strangers in unfamiliar settings, when forced into positions, and when experiencing inappropriate or harsh training methods (Glenk, 2014). Added stressors are being hugged by strangers, especially in an unfamiliar setting. Additional studies show that dogs who have been practicing therapy dogs, are over two years old, who have been visiting the same place and interacting with the same people do not show increases in their cortisol levels during interactions (Ng, et al, 2014).

But beyond the studies, it is simple really. When you love and respect your friend, you do not want to mistreat them. And taking that a step further, you want to ensure that he is content, or even happy. Being aware, and objective, will keep our dogs happy….and allow everyone to benefit from AAI.