A Helping Paw: Animal Assisted Therapy at JMU


Francis with the Duke Dog

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is used in a variety of settings, including numerous university counseling centers across the country. JMU's Counseling Center has three animal assisted therapy dogs! Francis, Wicket, and Winston participate in individual and group counseling as well as specific outreach programs. They are pets of Counseling Center clinicians and have completed their training and certification to become animal therapists. When the Counseling Center started the AAT program, clinicians worked with university officials to create policies about incorporating AAT on campus. 

AAT is not just bringing a pet to work. While the animal therapists are usually the pet of a clinician, the use of these animals at the Counseling Center is for a specific therapeutic goal. The specific training involved in AAT uses the human-animal connection with the intention of easing psychological suffering. It's also more than just having an animal present in the office. It involves intentional, goal-directed use of an animal in a therapeutic setting. For an animal to be considered a therapy animal, it has to go through specific training and have certain characteristics and temperament.  In order to be accepted in the training, the animal must be deemed appropriate by meeting a set of requirements. These requirements include but are not limited to: at least 1 year of age, house-trained, obedience-trained, well socialized, pass a good behavior and temperament test, no history of aggression or biting, and must have a current veterinarian. The animal must work with a service provider with skills and knowledge in human-animal interaction.

Animal therapists may be used to help a wide range of clients with a variety of presenting concerns. The animal therapist may be helpful in easing symptoms of anxiety and reduce depressive symptoms. Animals therapist can help clients with skills such as assertiveness or boundary setting. Additionally, animal therapists can be helpful with student experiencing grief, eating disorders, and PTSD as well as a variety of other mental health concerns.

Each session is different with an animal therapist, depending on the client’s need that day as well as how the animal therapist is feeling. Having an animal on your lap can create a human-animal bond, making it easier to experience, understand, and talk about different emotions. The clinician can also use the animal therapist to model skills such as boundary setting, assertiveness, and gentle care and compassion. Sometimes even without direct interaction, simply having an animal in the room helps create a safe and therapeutic environment.

An animal therapist provides clients with unconditional acceptance and empathy, motivating them to attend counseling and participate. Animal therapists would not be useful for clients with allergies, phobias, or who are uncomfortable around dogs. The Counseling Center has a set of AAT policies and procedures that inform the goal directed user of animal therapist in order to maximize therapeutic benefits and minimize negative experiences.

Winston, dog animal therapist at JMU Francis, dog animal therapist at JMU Wicket, a dog animal therapist at JMU

 A rescue from the Roanoke SPCA. He completed training to become an animal therapist in the 2015-2016 school year. He can typically be found in the office of our Coordinator of Multicultural Student Outreach. 
Francis: Adopted from the Harrisonburg SPCA. He began working at the Counseling Center in February 2011. He can typically be found in our Psychiatrist’s office. 
 A rescue from the Rockingham SPCA in September 2014. He completed training to become an animal therapist in the 2015-2016 academic year. He typically hangs out in the STEP Coordinator's office.

Last Updated: Tuesday, November 7, 2017

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