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Animals in OT: Resources for Practice, Training, and Research

by Diana Varvara and Jennie Dapice Feinstein


Can you combine occupational therapy and animals? Of course!

The bigger question is How? To answer that question, a practitioner needs resources. But in our experience, those resources are scattered and often buried, and if we’re all digging to unearth the same info, that leaves less time to plant seeds. So we’ve collected some resources related to practice, training, and research for occupational therapists who want to work with animals, in the hope that, together, we can nurture and grow this area of OT.

Occupational Therapy and Animals; or, Animal-Assisted Therapy

Over the past decade, occupational therapists have become increasingly involved in the growing field of human-animal interaction, also known as HAI. Defined, human-animal interaction is shared, dynamic associations between people and animals, and the effects of those relationships on health and well-being (McCardle, McCune, Griffin, Esposito, & Freund, 2011). How does this mesh with occupational therapy? For one, pet care is an instrumental activity of daily living, according to AOTA’s Framework (2014). Second, assistance animals can help OT clients engage in meaningful daily activities, so a handful of OTs recommend or evaluate clients for such animals or help clients learn to work with them. Finally, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) can help appropriate clients reach OT-related goals.

Animal-assisted therapy, if you’re not yet familiar, is composed of interventions delivered and documented by a health or human services professional (like an OT), where an animal is incorporated into treatment within the professional’s scope of practice (Pet Partners, 2012). The OT may either handle the animal herself or work with a human handler and her animal. AAT differs from animal-assisted activities (AAA), which have more of a meet-and-greet nature (Pet Partners, 2012); for example, volunteers visiting eldercare facilities or engaging in library reading programs with their pets.

Although still relatively uncommon, occupational therapists practicing AAT are more and more visible, incorporating animals as diverse as horses, llamas, dogs, and ducks into their work. Stats are hard to come by, but as of 2015, there were 49 self-identified OTs registered with the organization Pet Partners as animal-assisted therapy providers, 37 of whom were in the US (per the Pet Partners website). And since Pet Partners is primarily a volunteer organization, not a professional one (see below), they’re just one organization that registers providers, and they register only the people who work directly with an animal, that number represents just a percentage of OTs in this burgeoning field.

Educational Resources for Incorporating Animals in Occupational Therapy

If you want animals to play a role in your occupational therapy practice, education is essential. The most relevant training is in animal-assisted therapy, or AAT. Because such training is rarely OT specific, you’ll need to merge what you learn with your OT knowledge, and, as with your OT degree, supplement it liberally. Some of the resources mentioned in part I of this series offer educational programming along with their various other services. Here, we focus on additional resources that are widely, or virtually, available.

AAT Certificate Programs

One option is the online AAT certificate program through the Animal Behavior Institute in Durham, NC. While not specific to AAT, despite its name, its extensive focus on animal behavior and training may be useful for developing a good understanding of how your animal partner communicates—essential for his or her health and well-being. Five courses, forty hours of required fieldwork, and a $5,925 price tag mean it’s not for the casually interested.

A likewise extensive yet more health-care-oriented AAT program is offered through the School of Nursing at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Also five courses, this online certificate program has the benefit of an interdisciplinary advisory committee that includes an occupational therapist. A defining characteristic of the program is its capstone project, in which students develop a personalized business plan that can be given to a supervisor or facility.

The University of Denver's Animals and Human Health Certificate program educates professionals of multiple types (health care, education, law enforcement, etc.) looking to augment their practice with animals. Three online courses followed by a two-day session on site (or via Skype) focus on giving students the knowledge, tools, and expert feedback to create and implement their own animal-assisted intervention program. If name recognition is important to you, here’s where you’re most likely to find it: The course series is from DU’s well-regarded Institute for Human-Animal Connection.

Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, PA, offers an AAT (really, AAA/T) certificate course taught by Phil Arkow, a humane educator who’s written multiple books on the course’s subject. Thirty hours of online classwork takes students through the history, science behind, and logistics of AAA/T, including animal selection, risk management, and program development, while multiple clinical observations in students’ local area help them understand how AAA/T works in practice.

Distance Learning Course

Through its Consortium for Animal Assisted Therapy (CAAT), the University of North Texas provides a 15-hour basic and advanced or 7-hour advanced-only distance-learning course in animal-assisted interventions. The basic level contains Pet Partners AAA training; the advanced, health-care-specific training. The material, taught by a professor of counseling, centers on that area of practice.

Animal Assisted Therapy Applications Course

Also associated with Pet Partners, the University of New Hampshire extension school offers that organization’s AAT Applications course in a four-week (six-hour) online format. This course is geared toward health-care professionals and covers evaluation of therapy animals, identification of and response to animal stress behaviors (info that’s imperative for any AAT practitioner but is often skipped in courses), client and environmental assessment, treatment techniques, documentation, and research.

Human-Animal Interaction Courses

More academic, but with practical courses being added, Tufts University's Institute for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI) offers several courses with a broader focus: human-animal interaction, including one more closely addressing AAT. Courses are spread across the university in its veterinary school, child development and occupational therapy departments, and vary in time commitment and tuition. (Disclosure: Coauthor Jennie Dapice Feinstein is slated to co-teach the animal-assisted interventions course that begins in summer 2016.)

Continuing Education Options

Continuing ed company PESI's full-day animal-assisted interventions seminar is taught by a social worker with AAT experience. It covers uses of and functional goal setting in AAT as well as recent research and laws that affect practice with animals. The course is preapproved for OT CEUs and is offered in video format as well as in person in various locations.

A few AAT practitioners offer in-person continuing education. Among them: Melissa Winkle teaches AAT workshops internationally, both through AAII and independently. She offers post-professional AAOT clinical rotations as well. Mental health counselor Christi Dudzik also provides AAT training workshops for health-care professionals, including one on incorporating therapy animals into the rehab setting.

AOTA Annual Conference

AOTA’s annual conferences can be a source of education too; they typically have at least a few presentations related to AAT (and the 2016 conference has an entire Institute session devoted to it). The bonus: CEUs aren’t a question, and you can learn about lots of other topics as well.

As the field of human-animal interaction (HAI) continues to gain traction, studies that straddle occupational therapy and HAI can help validate occupational therapists’ involvement in HAI-related work, such as animal-assisted therapy.

However, more importantly, they can elucidate how animals can help us help our clients participate in activities that bring meaning to their lives. Think outside the box to acquire funding and partnerships for such research; the directors of several HAI programs we contacted—including the Consortium for Animal Assisted Therapy at the University of North Texas (discussed in part II of this series) and the Human-Animal Interaction Studies project at Colorado State University —told us that though they weren’t currently doing research with OTs, they’d be open to exploring the possibilities.

6 Unlikely Places that Welcome OT Involvement

1) The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIH NICHD) has funding earmarked for HAI research, particularly as related to child development, health, and therapeutic interventions.

2) Waltham, the pet science foundation associated with Mars Petcare (a pet food and care company), not only has a research partnership with NIH, but also sponsors its own HAI research with an emphasis on companion animals’ effects on children.

3) Though based in the veterinary school, Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI) includes an OT on its board of advisors and has an OT ambassador. TIHAI collaborates across disciplines to research the impact of HAI across the lifespan. It also sponsors a Pet Partners visiting animal program in the central MA area, which could yield additional opportunities for research as well as practice.

4) The Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Human-Animal Interaction (CHAI), part of the school of medicine, supports OT by serving on student research committees, and is open to working with OTs on interdisciplinary research. Additionally, CHAI sponsors Dogs on Call, a program that provides animal visits to hospital patients, often as part of OT or PT in the acute-care setting.

5) Though it focuses largely on animal-assisted activities rather than animal-assisted therapy the nonprofit Pet Partners (also discussed in part I) provides visiting animal-handler teams to work with OTs at their places of employment, and welcomes research related to this and its other endeavors.

6) More localized private companies also offer partnership possibilities: Green Chimneys, a Putnam County, NY, nonprofit that serves youth in nature-based programs, and CHUM Therapeutic Riding, an OT-owned facility in Mason, MI, that provides equine-assisted interventions, are just two that have an interest in funded OT-related research. Others are out there, we know; so if you’re interested in HAI/OT research, be sure to scout your local area for potential partners.

Practice Resources for Animal-Assisted Therapy

Working with animals to provide OT services requires preparation and knowledge of best practices.

As occupational therapists, we need to ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks, not only for our clients but also for the animals involved in any HAI activity we undertake. Regardless of whether you plan to venture into HAI in the area of pet care, assistance animals, or AAT, the following organizations can help you get familiar with the field and then stay on top of the evidence (which is essential) once you’re established in it.

The Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation (HABRI) is a treasure trove of information on interdisciplinary research and education regarding human-animal interaction. Its searchable online database, HABRI Central, contains an extensive archive of HAI-related studies, book content, videos, and conference proceedings, as well as information about continuing education offerings.

With its well-respected journal, Anthrozoös, the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) is at the forefront of HAI research. Its email listserv, coordinated by a nurse involved in HAI work, highlights new opportunities for learning and research, and provides a helping hand in learning about top players in the field as it expands.

Animal Assisted Intervention International started, and remains, closer to home: One of its founders and current president is occupational therapist Melissa Winkle, who has been involved in AAT, as well as assistance dog provision, for years. This membership group sets professional standards for health care and social-service practice with animals, as well as hosting conferences and providing continuing ed.

Though AAA-centric, Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) published standards of practice for AAT in 1996 and continues to be relevant for therapists interested in incorporating animals into their practice. If you’re looking to work with a volunteer animal–handler team or start a visitation program in your facility, this is one of the best-known organizations to consult. Though not OT-based, Pet Partners also provides opportunities for animal–handler registration and courses related to AAT administration.

Love horses? The American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) is a dedicated organization for OTs, PTs, and SLPs who provide equine-assisted therapy (EAT). It offers training and certification, a directory of EAT practitioners, conferences, and continuing ed, and a semiannual magazine covering a variety of topics of interest within the field.

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International (formerly the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, or NARHA) is another equine-focused membership organization. PATH International has a broader scope than AHA, including both equine-assisted activities and therapy, but PATH International sets the industry standards for both. It also offers training, certifications (of multiple types), mentorship, conferences, job listings, and grant information, and has a searchable database of member centers on its website.

If you’re looking to get into referral or evaluation for assistance animals, consider consulting Assistance Dogs International (ADI) to find a local organization to work with. Although dog-centric, ADI sets the bar for the field of provision of assistance animals.


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