What Makes an Animal (and Handler) Suitable to be a Therapy Animal Team?

Intermountain Therapy Animals looks for very specific qualities in the companion animals it registers as therapy animals. Pet owners who are considering signing up to be animal-assisted therapy handlers should keep the following in mind:

What Kinds of Animals Will Qualify?

Besides dogs and cats, there are a great many other species that make wonderful visiting animals and can form strong human-animal bonds. To name just a few: birds, rabbits, goats, domestic rats, hamsters, guinea pigs, ducks and chickens, goats, miniature pigs, llamas, cows and horses.

At this time, Intermountain Therapy Animals does not work with large animals like llamas, cows and horses. (But if this is your interest, stay tuned, because there may be another group organizing locally quite soon that will specialize in large animals in a farm-like setting.) Also, animals such as snakes, ferrets, lizards and wild or exotic animals are not registered. This is because wild or exotic animals are not legally acceptable as pets in many states, and without more research documenting their predictability over time, we cannot accurately evaluate their behavior and reaction to stress.

What Makes an Animal Appropriate?

Animals should have at least a basic level of training so that they are reliable and under control even in crowded situations and when there are loud noises. Therapy animals should convey the image that they are well-behaved and have good manners. Because we love our animals, it is important that animals who participate in AAA/AAT have an interest in people and enjoy visiting. Look at the following checklist about what makes an animal appropriate for AAA/AAT.

  • Animal demonstrates behavior that is reliable, controllable, predictable, and inspires confidence in the person s/he is interacting with
  • Animal actively solicits interactions with people and is accepting and forgiving of differences in people’s reactions and behavior
  • Animal demonstrates relaxed body posture, moments of sustained eye contact (dependent upon species and breed), and relaxed facial expressions
  • Animal is more people-oriented than animal-oriented
  • Animal likes being petted, touched and hugged
  • Animal is able to remain calm with people doing such things as speaking loudly, clumsy movements and clapping
  • When approached from the rear, the animal may show curiosity, but does not startle, growl, jump up, bark, eliminate, act shy or resentful
  • The animal can walk on various surfaces reasonably comfortably, including carpet, concrete or asphalt, tile, linoleum, rubber matting and wooden floors
  • Animal can be held by another person than its owner for several minutes, continuing to demonstrate good manners with no vocalizing or extreme nervousness
  • Animal is outgoing, friendly and confident in new settings

What Kinds of Animals Definitely Will NOT Qualify?

  • Any pet that is aggressive to people or other animals would not pass the tests. Growling, snapping, lunging, extended barking, raising of hackles, or baring of teeth will disqualify a dog. Sometimes we meet owners who tell us, when their dog starts to growl, that’s just talking, or that’s just his way to say hello. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t work to have an animal in school and hospital settings, with people who are sick and perhaps frightened or even tentative about meeting a dog, to have to recoil in fear
  • If your pet is in poor health it would not be safe for it or the people s/he meets to be exposed. We visit in situations that are very fragile medically, and therapy animals must be picture-perfect in both health and grooming.
  • If your animal is unpredictable (sweet one moment, aggressive the next) or doesn’t like being around people (shy, backs away, gets nervous, quivers, etc.) it would not be suitable.
  • We do not accept any dogs who are wolf hybrids, even though many are wonderful companions, again because they can be unpredictable.
  • It is very important for your pet to live like a member of your family. Most dogs who live most of their lives outdoors, especially if they sleep outside and/or are kept chained most of the time, do not make good therapy animals. Dogs who are well behaved, well socialized members of their pack are most successful as therapy dogs.

What, Specifically, Will You and Your Animal Have to Do During the Test?

Essentials: You must pass all these skill-test items to qualify:

  • Your dog must be accepting of a friendly stranger and be willing to sit politely for petting. Must also be clean, healthy and well-groomed.
  • Your dog must be willing to go “out for a walk†with you on a loose lead–no pulling or dragging! Then you must both walk through a crowd, also on a loose leash, and be subjected to several visual and noise distractions without your dog panicking, becoming aggressive or too submissive.
  • Basic obedience: your dog will have to do a sit, a down, a stay-in-place, and a come-when-called. It must be able to meet a neutral dog without overreacting.

Aptitudes: You may score not ready on no more than three of these and still pass:

Generally, these items relate to people, equipment and situations that you and your animal may encounter while doing therapy visits. Your dog must not object to a thorough, all-over handling by a stranger (fingers in mouth, on tail, feet, etc.), a restraining hug, a staggering, gesturing individual, angry yelling going on, crowded petting, wheelchairs, walkers, etc. Your dog must also be willing to be held by a stranger for two minutes while you disappear. This test grades for overall sociability and observes carefully how must your dog is enjoying this sort of activity. We do not want to try to do good in the world if it means making our animal companions miserable.

These test items are primarily for dogs. If you have some other animal, there will be some variation in the procedures to accommodate species differences.

You may have questions after reading this information. Please feel free to contact us and ask for more detailed responses if you are unsure about what you have read above.

Thanks for your interest! Animal-assisted therapy is an idea whose time has come, and if you and your companion animal decide to join us in doing this work, you will have much joy ahead of you.