In this section, Dr. Elizabeth Kjellstrand Hartwig provides guidance on Frequently Asked Questions about animal-assisted counseling and the Texas State University AAC Academy.
Animal-assisted counseling (AAC) is a goal-directed process in which a trained mental health practitioner-animal team work together to help clients resolve mental health and behavioral challenges and achieve growth using the therapeutic powers of HAI. AAC often involves using experiential and expressive interventions that include the therapy animal. AAC maintains that the presence of the therapy animal makes an impact, regardless of the level of involvement of the therapy animal. AAC can be used with children, teens, and adults in both individual and group counseling settings.
This program is intended for graduate students and professionals who want to learn how to provide goal-directed animal-assisted counseling and play therapy services in working with children, teens, and families. Participants who may be interested in this training program include: counselors, play therapists, social workers, and psychologists. To enroll in the Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy, you must have earned a Master’s degree in a mental health or AAC-related field or be a current graduate student in a related clinical field. It’s important to note that AAC Academy does not prepare participants to be a counselor, but rather to build on skills a participant has already learned in her/his field of study.
There are at least three reasons to get training in AAC:
Learning - Training in AAC provides you with knowledge about a unique approach to working with clients. Bringing another species into your work with clients involves a thorough understanding of animal communication and behavior, how to balance the needs of your client and the therapy animal, and how to promote positive human-animal interactions. Therapy animals also need to learn about the clinical setting and basic skills for working with clients.
Competence - The American Counseling Association, National Association of Social Workers, American Psychological Association, and the Association for Play Therapy all describe the responsibility of professionals to maintain competence in their field and areas of speciality, such as animal-assisted counseling (Code of Ethics: ACA C.2, NASW 1.04, APA Standard 2; APT Best Practices D.2). By working with an animal in clinical practice without training and supervision in AAC, you may be violating those codes of ethics. Participating in the AAC Academy provides you with knowledge and skills in this field of specialization.
Liability - Participants will learn about the ethics of animal-assisted counseling, including the prevention of harm to clients, therapy animals, and self, as well as resources for professional liability insurance coverage. While the AAC Academy cannot guarantee that accidents won't happen in the future, participants can learn ways to promote safety and prevent harm in clinical settings.
The AAC Academy is specifically focused on training in animal-assisted counseling, which is a specialization area for counselors and mental health practitioners. In order to learn all of the components of AAC, it's important for practitioners to participate in all three trainings. This way, we can ensure that all participants have learned the same information about foundations of AAC, animal welfare, animal communication, and positive training. In addition, there is a certain amount of liability that goes into having dogs and other animals on campus. This university program requires that participants attend all three trainings in order to ensure the promotion of safety and prevention of harm.
We welcome all applicants, including those with little to no experience in AAC and those who have already participated in other AAT/AAC trainings or are a registered volunteer therapy animal team.
Absolutely! We welcome Texas State University students, graduate students from other universities, and professionals who are interested in integrating AAC into their practice.
Volunteer work with animals is considered animal-assisted activities and clinical work with therapy animals is considered animal-assisted therapy or counseling.
Animal-assisted activities (AAA) are volunteer activities with a therapy animal that improve psychosocial health of others. Therapy animal teams need training and registration to do this, such as through the Pet Partners Therapy Animal Team program. Examples of AAAs include visiting a resident at an assisted living facility, visiting a child in a hospital, and the Finals Week at Alkek Library event every December and May. Therapy animal teams can only volunteer up to two hours and cannot be paid for these services in order to be covered under therapy animal team insurance coverage.
Animal-assisted counseling is a goal-directed process of involving a therapy animal in the counseling process in order to improve the psychosocial health of clients. Clinicians and therapy animals need additional training, such as the AAC Academy program, in order to learn how to balance the needs of the client and therapy animal in the room, develop an effective treatment plan to meet counseling goals, and learn and choose interventions that involve the therapy animal in the clinical process. These skills are not covered in basic dog training classes or in therapy animal team volunteer programs, such as Pet Partners. Practitioners need to practice and receive supervision to develop clinical skills when involving a therapy animal into the counseling and clinical process.
The second and third trainings integrate a participant’s potential therapy animal into the learning process. The AAC Academy trainings are open to animals who meet specific criteria, such as friendliness toward strangers, demonstration of basic obedience skills, and no history of aggression. For therapy dog teams, you and your dog must have passed the Canine Good Citizen evaluation in order to apply to participate in the AAC Academy. All potential therapy animal teams are also pre-assessed by Dr. Hartwig prior to participation in the AAC Academy. Some animals may not be a good fit for therapy work, but are a great fit as a loving family pet.
Dogs are the most common animal participants in the AAC Academy. Smaller animals, such as cats, guinea pigs, bunnies, and hedgehogs, can participate in some of the training. An alternate location and training times will be arranged for animals other than dogs.
There are a number of benefits to choosing the Texas State University Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy:
- The AAC Academy uses an experiential approach to learning. Participants will get to learn about animal-assisted counseling in the first course/training, practice skills with their potential therapy animal in the second training, and put AAC skills into practice with clients in the third training. This experiential approach allows you to learn and practice AAC skills with your animal and receive supervision and feedback in practice sessions with clients.
- All AAC workshops are offered as intensive trainings, so that you can learn and practice skills by taking a short break from your work or clinical practice schedule.
- The AAC Director and Instructor, Dr. Elizabeth Hartwig, is an experienced counselor, an LPC and RPT supervisor, an Assistant Professor of Counseling, a Pet Partners Team Evaluator, and has years of experience in animal-assisted counseling.
- The cost of the program is less than many other Animal-Assisted Therapy programs and provides more contact hours of in-person training and support. This program is also focused on AAC, rather than animal-assisted interventions or activities.
- Participants earn 120 hours of CEUs that are approved or accepted by the LPC, LMFT, NCC, and Social Work Boards. Participants interested in working toward becoming a Registered Play Therapist (RPT) will earn 120 hours of play therapy training, which has been approved by the Association for Play Therapy.
- Participants will work toward passing the first AAC Evaluation. with their animal partner.
- Participants can learn how to communicate in new ways with their animal and work with their animal in clinical settings as an AAC team.