How to Become an Animal-Assisted Therapist

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Famed nurse Florence Nightingale wrote in 1869 about the benefits of working with animals in a therapy setting with patients. She noted how people felt less anxious and became happier when interacting with animals.

Animal-assisted therapists offer direct animal contact as part of their treatment plans for clients. Therapists using this technique often are mental or physical health care professionals who use animals as one component of their overall treatment plans. Other therapists focus exclusively on animal-assisted counseling. These therapists integrate animals into their sessions with clients, supervising the animals while the interaction takes place. It’s an effective therapy because the animals provide affection to clients through physical contact, ease their anxieties or simply give clients an incentive to attend more counseling sessions because they feel better.

how to become an animal assisted therapist

Dogs are the most frequently used animal in assisted therapy, followed by horses. Cats, rabbits, and even dolphins are used to help patients in specific therapy settings.

Animal-assisted therapy became a formal discipline in the 1960s when child psychologist Dr. Boris Levinson noticed that when his dog Jingles came into the room during a session with a patient, children who were withdrawn and uncommunicative became more at ease and often began to communicate. Levinson refined his methods and eventually wrote the first book on the subject, Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy (1971). It’s still in print.

It’s important to know that animals for therapy are not the same as service animals, such as seeing-eye dogs, or emotional support animals, which require different training.

Animals are trained for the therapy situations in which they work. Therapists often live with the animals they work with, forming a unique bond that helps during therapy sessions.

Animal-assisted therapy can be used to help clients recovering from mental and emotional health issues, and to cope with some medical conditions. It’s an especially popular and effective form of therapy for elderly individuals. Therapy dogs, for instance, can often be found visiting the residents of nursing homes and patients in rehabilitation facilities. The result is a calming effect, soothing patients and giving them access to a friendly, tactile animal that wants to be loved and expresses love in return.

Your work as an animal-assisted therapist can be extremely rewarding as you help individuals regain peace and happiness in their lives. The techniques are much more involved than merely petting a dog or splashing in the ocean with dolphins. But the impact is still powerful: reducing a client’s grief, anxiety and isolation – even blood pressure and the risk of heart attack or stroke – while building self-esteem, improving social skills and in some cases reducing the client’s need for certain medications.

You can also make a good living as an animal-assisted therapist while spending your work day with a beloved dog, perhaps a cat or horse, or even with dolphins in facilities equipped with saltwater tanks.

In this article you’ll learn:

  • How much money you can make as an animal-assisted therapist
  • The required training and certifications
  • Professional groups to join
  • Employment opportunities for an animal-assisted therapist     
  • Finding clients
  • Plus helpful tips

How much money can you make?

For government employment tracking, animal-assisted therapists are included in the group known as recreational therapists. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary of this group is currently $48,220. Therapists in private practice typically make much more, after several years of experience, and six-figure incomes are not uncommon.

Training and Certification

Formal education requirements to practice any form of psychotherapy include a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Typically, social sciences and psychology are the main programs of study.

trainging and certification as animal assisted therapist

There are many training programs available in the United State leading to certification as an animal-assisted therapist. You’ll want to choose a certification program accredited by an organization such as the American Association for Veterinary State Boards or the International Association for Continuing Education and Training. Training programs should list accreditations on their websites. If not, ask and confirm they are accredited.

One representative example of an accredited program is the Animal Behavior Institute, which offers an online training program leading to certification as an animal-assisted therapist. The program consists of four required courses plus one elective, totaling 15 credits. The cost of the certificate program is $5,925. Textbooks are purchased separately. Tuition assistance is available with interest-free financing. The program can be completed in less than a year if you’re taking classes full-time.

What you’ll learn:

  • Work with animals in an educational or therapeutic setting
  • Correctly interpret human and animal body language
  • Train dogs and other animals to work safely in a therapy environment
  • Understand animal cognition and emotions
  • Create safe and effective programs for clients
  • Anticipate and resolve potential problems
  • Understand the legal and ethical issues
  • Work with a variety of personality types
  • Create animal enrichment programs

Professional Groups to Join

There are several professional organizations to consider joining as you develop your career in animal-assisted therapy:

The first two organizations are dedicated to professionals who use horses as part of their therapy work, while Pet Partners is more general and Therapy Dogs International, as the name would suggest, caters to therapists working with canines. Annual fees vary by organization. Consult the website for the organizations that interest you to download application materials.


Animal-assisted therapists may work part-time or full-time with animals, and they also can specialize by focusing on children or adults.

Healthcare facilities where you may find employment in the field include physical therapy, occupational therapy, social work, speech-language pathologists and recreation therapy. Nursing homes and rehabilitation centers will also pay for an animal-assisted therapist to visit on a set schedule and provide counseling services.

employment as animal assisted therapist

Finding Clients

Contact other members of your professional organizations to ask about job openings. You may learn of an opportunity that hasn’t yet been advertised.

Many professional organizations maintain an online directory that prospective clients use to find a therapist in their area. Get your business added to the list and keep your contact information up-to-date.

Contact other professionals in your community to let them know you’re available for referrals. Clergy, doctors, and especially other therapists are good sources for referrals. You may pick up new clients referred to you by counselors who suspect animal-assisted therapy may be the best path for treatment.   

You’ll also need an attractive website. Every page should include your business name, address, city and state and contact information on every page at the top so search engines will find your website and display it to people looking for an animal-assisted therapist in your area.

finding clients as animal assisted therapist

Include a selection of photos of the animal or animals your clients can expect to work with.

Your website should also include a call to action. This encourages people to get in touch with you. Here’s one approach: “Contact me today. I can help.”

When running a private practice you’ll also need to make a decision on whether to take insurance as payment. Accepting insurance can broaden the pool of potential clients who’ll work with you. On the downside, insurance companies may not pay out a fee you would customarily charge. It’s a tradeoff only you can decide.

Good to know:

The American Kennel Club offers extensive information on how to train a therapy dog. The animal must be at least a year old and pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen program, which trains the dog in obedience and what the organization refers to as “good manners.” Tests include assessing the dog’s acceptance of friendly strangers, reaction to distractions, ability to follow obedience commands and other behaviors that will make the dog more suitable for working in a therapy setting. While you may be able to find and purchase a dog trained for animal-assisted therapy, training the dog yourself through the AKC’s program builds the bonds of trust and love between you and your dog.

things to know as animal assisted therapist

Some individuals who may be resistant to other types of therapy often respond favorably to animals in a therapeutic setting. Clients who have difficulty expressing themselves or opening themselves to emotion are often good candidates. Research shows people with a variety of conditions can benefit from animal-assisted therapy, these specifically:

  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Addiction
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Dementia
  • Developmental disorders
  • Psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia
  • Emotional and behavioral disorders
  • Chronic pain

If you enjoyed this article, check out some more great content that can help you grow your career as an animal-assisted therapist. Here’s a great place to start.

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