LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Animal-Assisted Therapy ft. Dr. Taylor Griffin

Someone once said that “The best therapist has fur and four legs”. Let’s find out how true that is as we explore Animal-Assisted Therapy in this episode.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Dr. Taylor Chastain Griffin, the National Director of Animal-Assisted Interventions Advancement at Pet Partners, an organization dedicated to improving people’s health through positive interactions with therapy animals. She has a background as a dog trainer, therapy dog handler, and in mental health.

Welcome, Taylor!

Taylor- Hi! Thank you so much for having me.

Valerie-  It’s great to have you talk to us. In the introduction, I mentioned that you have a background as a therapy dog handler and also in mental health. How have you found animals positively impact human lives?

Taylor- Yes, that is a great question. I have found endless ways that animals can positively impact our lives. It’s not just in my experiences but also in research. There are so many different findings that support this claim- Animals can help us model relationships. We can learn how to trust and take care of one another interpersonally. They also help us with our physical health. There are studies that talk about us being more active when we have animals. We have more sense of motivation, a reason to get up in the morning when we have animals in our lives

There’s something intangible and indescribable about the way we tend to react when we have animals around us. When I was a counselor and I had animals in my practice with me, I found that people trusted me a lot more quickly. They would just come into the office and smile and feel comfortable because of that animal’s presence.

Valerie-  Right. Taylor, what is your relationship with animals like? As far as I know, you have a lot of dogs at home!

Taylor- Yes, my love for animals really brought me into this field. I would say that over the years, the more I’ve learnt about animals, the more I can on the perspective that they’re my teachers,- that they have something to teach me and I would just like to do all I can to be a messenger for what they bring into our lives. I see everyday when I come home that my animals greet me with love and with happiness no matter what mood that I’m in. It motivates me to try and do the same in my relationships. I have animals at home now who were rescued. They’ve had really hard starts to life and now they’re therapy animals who share love with people all over the world. I really respect animals and think they’re really complex, feeling beings that we’re only just starting to understand. It’s my goal to understand that and be a microphone for that all over the world!

Valerie-  It’s so correct that you said it’s an incomparable feeling when you go home to an animal and you get all of that love! No matter what mood you’re in, you’re always uplifted after that.

Taylor- I heard a saying once that we “should be the person our dog thinks we are” and I think that’s definitely a goal.

Valerie-  I have a T-shirt that says that!

Taylor- Great! I love it.

Valerie- Could you tell us what Animal-Assisted Therapy is? 

Taylor- Animal-Assisted Therapy is a term that falls within the umbrella term Animal-Assisted Interventions. It’s when a professional is bringing a therapy animal into practice with them to help meet treatment goals. This could be a mental health professional, a physical therapist. There are a lot of different ways that the animal can come in and help achieve those goals but it becomes Animal-Assisted Therapy when there’s measurable outcomes that relate to the interaction that we have with the animal. 

Valerie- What’s the training process like for animals to get registered as therapy animals?

Taylor- It’s an intensive process. For us at Pet Partners, we do not just register a therapy animal, we register a therapy animal team. We believe that the competency of the person is just as important as the competency of the animal because the person is going to be the one who is protecting that animal throughout the process. So if you have an animal that’s going to be a good fit, the first thing we look at is whether it’s a type of animal that’s going to actually enjoy and not just tolerate this interaction. Do they really like to be around new people? 

If that’s the case, the first step is that the human is going to take a course, we have an online course that’s available. Then once they pass that course, they can take an in-person evaluation with their animal. At that point, we’re testing fort basic obedience queues, how they’re going to respond to medical equipment, loud noises. They’re allowed to have responses, of course. We’re not looking for robots but we’re looking for whether they can recover and are still competent and happy. Therapy animals in our organization re-evaluate every two years. We know animals age much more quickly than we do so we like to make sure we’re checking in and ensuring that it’s a good fit for an animal throughout the lifetime.

Valerie- When we talk about therapy animals, what kind of animals are we talking about? How do we know what animal will have the best interaction with which person?

Taylor- We have nine different species of therapy animals at Pet Partners – dogs, cats, horses, llamas, alpacas, rabbits, guinea pigs, eats, pigs but by and large, our most common therapy animal is a dog. I always fall back on the competencies of the handler. For me, I have so much background in working with dogs that I’m definitely most comfortable interacting with therapy dogs because I can read their body language the best. 

There are different clients that have preferences. We find that older adults sometimes seem to have a preference for cats. We see that sometimes our young boys get very excited when we come in with a therapy rat. You can ask for the preferences of the people you’re visiting but really, it comes down to the animal that you’d be most comfortable working with and that’s an animal who’s going to be confident, affiliative – meaning they seek out interactions with humans, and they’re ready to listen to you so you have a safe interaction when you’re in the public. 

Valerie- What interactions do the animals have with people during Therapy? 

Taylor- That can vary depending on the treatment goals. When I was in a session with my client, they would sometimes help model healthy relationships. We would talk about how you can build trust with my therapy animals by giving them training cues or getting to know their preferences, and the same thing goes with interactions with people. You can even do physical activities- I had one activity that I did with young people. They had a ball that they could throw to play fetch with my animal and on the ball, there were maybe ten different feeling words- sad, happy, excited, and as the animal would bring the ball back to the child, they would read the word that was facing them and have to tell me about a time in their life when they were feeling those emotions. So they’re accessing these memories and emotions but in a really safe, playful way. So it really depends on the animal and on the goals of the professional but it can fit into any intervention that the professional has, as long as you’re creative and you’re committed to honoring the welfare of the animal all throughout. 

Valerie- That’s interesting! What does a typical session look like? More importantly, how comfortable does one have to be with the animal?

Taylor- The session will be different each time. When I was doing a fifty minute session, I tend to find that a client would come in, greet my animal, and sometimes we would spend time with the animal just sitting on their lap, as we talk. Sometimes, they would do about ten or fifteen minutes of training activities with them. It depends on the energy level and the preferences of the client. In order to work with a therapy animal though, you should be highly familiar with that animal. At Pet Partners, we have a rule that an animal cannot become a therapy animal until they’re a year old and the handler has had to know that animal for at least six months. We think you should have a well developed relationship with these animals so that you can read their body language, advocate for them and they’re really a partner with you in what you do, not just an accessory. 

Valerie- Supposing someone’s going to psychotherapy, when do they try something like Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Taylor- They can try it at any point in their treatment if it’s something they’re interested in and if they can find a practitioner who has a therapy animal. We consider a person to be a good candidate for this if they don’t have any fears or phobias or allergies of animals. We also like to encourage professionals to set their clients up for success by having the initial session to be one in which you just talk about how you’re going to interact with the animal instead of expectations, before having that hands-on experiences when it can become really exciting and a hard time to learn about how to interact with the animals when the animal is there. It can really fit into any time and treatment. We have animals who are with clients all throughout their process of healing, sometimes they come in every now and then as just a special treat. It’s a really flexible intervention, which is one of my favorite things about it.

Valerie- When you were talking to us earlier, you told us about how having an animal can uplift your mood and just help through the healing process. How is Animal-Assisted Therapy different from psychotherapy when it comes to sessions, in terms of the mental health impact that it has? Can you talk us through the process of healing that you were telling us about, with animals?

Taylor- Any time a therapist is going to work with an animal, there needs to be this core set of competencies. The animal is not a magic solution that brings about healing. They’re joining sides with a very skilled professional, who can meet their treatment outcomes with or without the animal. With that being said though, the animal can be a really meaningful aid. One of the things that people talk about is the idea of relationship-building, that animals assist in that and building trust between the client and the therapist. 

There are also just creative ways that you can access new things when you have an animal in the session. I’m thinking two times when we have topics that are really hard to teach young people. We would talk about consent and appropriate touch, which are hard things to communicate to a child, sometimes but when you’re modelling it on an animal like for example, I have a therapy animal named Lucy. I would tell clients that Lucy likes to be pet behind her ear and she doesn’t like to be pet so much on her stomach and so because that’s her preference, that’s something we should follow. Do you have preferences? What’s appropriate for you? So they can really model ways to set boundaries in a non-threatening way while working with the therapy animal.

Valerie- It’s so interesting that you said you can use these animals to explain things to people in a way that’s not threatening and not something that would be a confrontational conversation that would be difficult to talk about if you were doing it directly.

Taylor- Yes, exactly. You can really do a lot of perspective taking activities with animals. I would often work with children who had a hard time taking the perspective of other people but they could learn to do that with my animals. I would say that when you come into the room, it’s important not to get in Lucy’s face and be too excited because that can be overwhelming for her even though she loves you, so think about how you’re being received. Then we can put that into human context – when you walk into your classroom and behave a certain way, how might it be received by the other people in your class?

Valerie- Right. Taylor, what age groups have you found Animal-Assisted Therapy to work best with?

Taylor- Animal-Assisted Therapy can be successful across all areas of the lifespan. There’s research and anecdotal evidence to back that up. Very young children can benefit from therapy animals, and even all the way up to people with severe dementia. We even have therapy animals who assist in cases of hospice, when it’s an end of life situation. You will want to think about the size of the animal and if there are any mobility issues that will impact a person’s ability to safely interact with different sized animals but really, it’s an intervention that can be safely implemented across the lifespan.

Valerie- Okay. We’ve heard that Pet Partners is soon launching an association for professionals who aim to bring therapy animals into their work. What are your views on this? What has your experience with Animal Assisted Intervention in a professional space been like? 

Taylor- I’m very very excited about this development. For a long time, Pet Partners has focused on serving volunteers who bring therapy animals into places like hospitals, schools and nursing homes, at least in the United States. We get calls from more and more professionals across many different fields who have heard about this intervention and would like to bring a therapy animal into their practice but they don’t know how to get started. That’s what our professional association is going to help with. 

We’re going to provide that roadmap, we’re going to provide education, opportunities to connect with other professionals through an online community, we are also going to have a certification evaluation so that a professional can show that they have competencies in this area. We see this as the next step that the field really needs. At the end of almost every research paper on Animal-Assisted Therapy, you see that there’s a call for more standardization and more professionalization within the field, and that’s what we’re going to be doing through the launch of this professional association.

Valerie- That’s really interesting, Taylor!

Taylor- Yes, we’re excited. We hope to have many of the listeners today join us. It should be launching in January of 2022 and you can visit petpartners.org to sign up for a newsletter that will keep you up to date on all of our advancements in this phase. 

Valerie- Sure, thank you for giving us that information. Thank you for talking to us today about Animal-Assisted Therapy because there is so much we got to learn from you. I have a dog at home and I know just how good you can feel when you have an animal waiting for you every single time you come back regardless of how you’re feeling. You’ve also talked to us about how you can use animals to model relationships, you can mirror the feeling of trust and having a safe space in your relationships with people as well, and it gives you a sense of motivation and upliftment. Thank you for talking to us and sharing all of this information with us. It’s definitely been a very very interesting conversation.

Taylor- Absolutely. It’s my pleasure and I hope that everyone who’s listening is motivated to think about the lessons that we learn from animals, whether it be pets or therapy animals, and how we can use those lessons to make the world a better place. 
Valerie- Thank you.

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