Animal Assisted Therapy That’s Office-Based

Although I have colleagues whose dogs or cats spend time in their offices, they’re not there explicitly as animal assisted therapy. On the other hand, there are therapists, I’ve learned, whose mission actually does include partnering with assistants of the animal kind.

One such therapist is Ellen Winston, recently featured in Alexandra Sifflin’s Time article on this topic. An online search found that her practice, Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado, was co-founded by Dr. Linda Chassman, and is located at Barking C.A.A.T. Ranch (Center for Animal Assisted Therapy), Lakewood.

Their website introduces us to their “animal partners,” which include dogs, cats, horses, a goat, a rabbit, and two rats—yes, rats— “adorable and sweet” Lucy and Ethel.

Also on their site is a list of some of the ways in which “animals enrich the therapy environment for clients.” (This does not mean that all of their clients must participate in this type of therapy; some may want or need a pet-free space.)

  • Most clients naturally feel comfortable with animals and have positive feelings when in an animal’s presence. This makes the counseling process more positive and enjoyable for clients. They look forward to seeing their animal co-therapist each week.
  • We have found that when an animal is present couples are able to focus more on relevant issues in the present, rather than on the anger of the past or fears of the future. This makes therapy time more productive.
  • Research has found that clients are often more motivated and invested in the treatment process when a therapy animal is present.
  • Each of our therapy animals have been rescued and have their own stories. This makes the animals particularly sensitive to the fears, stress and anxiety of others. Our therapy animals are particularly calming and nurturing to our clients.
  • We can often develop creative and fun interventions using the animals that help address the client’s issues without creating more stress.
  • Because clients can address issues faster when animals are present, therapy takes less time and is therefore more cost-effective.

This isn’t the only practice offering such services; increasingly, other therapists across the country are offering something along this vein. Per the Wall Street Journal, for example, California therapist Lois Abrams, who since 1999 has had two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Duke and Romeo, involved in her office work.

Abrams perceives them as “seeing heart dogs” because each has a talent for finding a specific type of disorder—Duke situates himself on the floor next to the those with anxiety disorders, and Romeo sits on the couch next to those with depression. Abrams alleges the latter once detected depression in a patient before she did.

Another part of her practice involves responding to disaster and traumas with the aid of Duke.

How do animals who assist therapists get rewarded for their role? you might ask, as did the WSJ. Answers range from “lots of cookies” to presents from patients to the internal satisfaction of doing an important job.

Want more information? In recent years more and more articles have been available online about animal-assisted therapy research and ideas. Another resource is the IAHAIO, or International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations, which unites interested parties from across the world and holds an annual conference.

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