Q&A: Pet Therapy

Panda-Girl with schoolchildren

Pearl Salotto has worked as a pet-assisted therapist for 20 years. She is director of the D.J. Pet-Assisted Therapy University Certificate Program in Rhode Island, one of the few programs in the country that trains and certifies pet-assisted therapists. She and her dogs Maj-En and Panda-Girl work in nursing homes, schools and social service agencies throughout the region, and she is recognized nationally as an advocate for professionalizing the field. She is the author of ‘Pet Assisted Therapy: A Loving Intervention and an Emerging Profession: Leading to a Friendlier, Healthier and More Peaceful World’ (2001). 

Q: What groups or populations can most benefit from pet therapy programs?
A: I don’t see any limits or boundaries or restrictions as far as the make-up of the population goes. Pets can help with whatever – if the issue is loneliness, pets can help with that. If the issue is self-esteem and responsibility, pets can help with that. If the issue is range of motion, pets can help with that. If it’s inability to connect with other beings or inability to open up and communicate, they can help with that.

There is one counter-indication – it’s the case where clients might pose a danger to the pets. And anyone with allergies, it goes without saying, it wouldn’t work. In the case where a person has a fear of animals, we would never force our pets on them, although we do work with a lot of people who have phobias related to animals. But the therapy is only on their terms.

Q: What types of animals work best in programs for children and adolescents?
A: Any companion animal will work – it could be a bunny, hamster, guinea pig, dog, cat or parakeet – as long as the animal lives in a family and is bonded to a family member. If a group of children likes birds or bunny rabbits, that’s fine, as long as they’ll eagerly interact with the pet and the pet will eagerly interact back. Then a bond develops, and once that bond develops, the therapist can build on that bond, and say, ‘If you want to continue to interact with my pet next week, you need to not hit other children,’ or whatever the goal of the program is. That’s where the creativity comes in – building on the love of the pet to help the children achieve their goals.

Q: But why animals?
A: Pets are non-threatening, they give unconditional love, they boost everybody’s self-esteem. I was just reading notes children had written in a second-grade class I work with. One note said, ‘Maj-En gives me his paw. Maj-En loves me.’ That’s the key to being a decent human being – if we feel we have value, we want to preserve that and give that to society.… Once that feeling is in your heart, you’re a different person, and it opens up countless things. It’s magical, it’s spiritual, it works.

Q: What program models are most effective?
A: We don’t impose a program model – we ask, what are the needs of your agency, of the population you work with? Do your kids love dogs, love cats? Do you want us to set up a contact with a local farm? It could involve having birds in the children’s rooms, it could involve setting up a fish tank, visits to the local zoo and then discussions afterwards. There are literally thousands of program models.

Q: But if an agency calls and really doesn’t have any idea how to integrate animals, what then?
I might recommend that I come in with my dog on a weekly basis and develop goals for individual students, and spend 20 minutes with each child individually. Or we might have a group, and do group goals to increase cooperation and communication, increase sharing, decrease depression, work on behavioral issues. In fact, that’s the most efficient way. You do group-based therapy where you can have 20 kids. We’d try to reach the kids we could be most effective with. There would be a process, a waiting list, a series of groups until all the kids had done a group. You make it as inclusive as you can and try to reach as many as you can.

Q: Your book reprints some research studies on the effectiveness of pet-assisted therapy, but what’s the acceptance level among clinicians working with children and youth?
A: Whether the doctors, social workers and counselors accept it isn’t a question. They do. Medicare, Medicaid, insurance and other funding isn’t there yet. Pet therapy is following in the same footsteps as music therapy and art therapy, and 20 years down the road, it will be as well-funded as those are.

Q: What’s behind the expense?
A: The pet has to be specially trained and credentialed and insured, and the pet therapist has to be trained. We require pet testing, certification that the animal is in good health, insurance coverage for the therapist. So there are some costs.

Q: Sometimes, rather than having a formal program, an agency will just let staff bring in their own dogs or cats, or have an animal live in residence. Can this be a good, low-cost option?
A: I have a bias against resident pets – a dog or cat that just wanders around. I had an experience early in my career when a nursing home administrator called me to set up a program for him, saying their resident dog did nothing but hide under his desk. I went to see him, and tried to figure out what was going on. It turned out the kitchen staff had abused the dog at night. I’ve heard horrific stories about resident pets, and the bottom line is, they shouldn’t be anywhere unless there’s supervision. There are terrific dangers to both people and pets by having pets just wander around.

To read more about pet-assisted therapy, or to contact Pearl Salotto, go to: http://www.djppat.com