How do I select an animal for pet therapy

There are many factors involved when selecting an animal to work as a partner in zootherapy, but the most important ones are:

Zero Aggression is a rule in place for obvious reasons. Let’s just all agree that a dog that bites when scared, surprised or touched will basically end a zootherapists career fairly quickly!

Easy Adaptation also may seem obvious, but there is actually much to consider. I often meet people who tell me that they have the perfect animal for zootherapy at home “as he is such a cuddler!” But when I ask them basic questions such as how do they enjoy car rides, and the person answers:

“Oh they hate those…”

Well, then the animal will unfortunately not survive as a zootherapy animal. Cuddling is actually not the biggest factor to consider. Easy adaptation will give you an animal that is easy to work with. Do they feel comfortable in long car rides, do they react when there is a loud noise, how do they react when suddenly surrounded by a group of people who want to touch them, how do they feel inside elevators, how do they react to umbrellas, a tall person wearing a hood, and how long does it take for them to feel at ease when entering a building they have never been in before.

A zootherapist will perform a series of tests on the animal to determine if the animal will be a happy zootherapy animal.

It’s important to understand the animal as we do not want to work with a stressed-out cat or dog. We want the session to be enjoyable for everyone, including the animals themselves. Personally, I like to work with animals that I own and live with because this allows me to really know them, know their limits and develop a bond. This bond is not only important for the zootherapy sessions to go smoothly, but also serve to strengthen my relationship with the client. I am the animal handler, and the client is drawn towards to the animal. This opens a communication bridge between me and the client.

Triangular Synergy

A good example of this would be to observe someone taking a dog for a walk. Chances are, at some point during the walk, at least one person will walk up to them and strike up a conversation about the dog breed, how cute the dog is and so on. Before we know it, the two strangers are striking up a conversation about something completely unrelated. For example, the time the man went on a trip to Florida and got attacked by a horde of seagulls… ha! If the same person takes a walk down the street without a dog, this conversation would never have happened. This point is important, because generally a good zootherapist will have received training in cognitive therapy, and will therefore use this synergy to begin the process of guiding the person towards better being. The difference between a conversation with a zootherapist as opposed to a person with no training is that, the zootherapist in the end, is a trained mental health worker.

One common misconception is that a zootherapy animal must be a perfectly behaved “Mira” type dog. Nothing could be further from the truth. We want to use animals with distinct personalities, funny habits, and different energy levels. Because the zootherapy clientele is so wide (ex. a child suffering from ADD, a frail elder in palliative care, a man who has schizophrenia, a woman who has finished a prison term and is having trouble adapting to society etc), we will generally have a bank of animals to choose from and will select the animal that fits the client best.

I once worked in a classroom with children who had certain behavioral problems. Some of these children had a tendency of always talking during the class, or session, disrupting the whole group. I decided to bring a rooster who just loved to sing. That rooster sang so much, and disrupted the class so often, that eventually, the children began to understand that this type of behavior was not appropriate, on their own.

An animal doesn’t judge, they are just themselves.

A lesson is always more powerful when experienced, not told.

I will not select a dog who constantly wants to play fetch to work with clients who are in palliative care, but that dog will certainly work well with patients suffering from schizophrenia, as the activity will help pull out of their minds and enjoy the present moment. When dealing with Autistic clients who have a phobia towards animals, I might start with a fish. Why not? It’s contained, beautiful, and there are many activities that we can actually do with a silly little fish.

I enjoy the process of selecting the animals and preparing the session as there is so much room for creativity. Selecting an animal for work is a very fun yet also serious process. A good zootherapist will never go into a session without having a set goal to achieve with the client, and therefore the animals chosen will never be random. They will always have a purpose.

The powerful lady-pharaoh that ruled over ancient Egypt.

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