The Role the Handler Plays on the Pet Therapy Team

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There are many goals of physical therapy that can be positively impacted by animal-assisted therapy. An animal may be a vital part of a therapy session along with their handler. It is important to make sure your program has addressed the role of the handler and how the pet therapy team will interact with the therapist in the policies and procedures or in procedural documents. The pet therapy team should plan with the therapist prior to the patient appointment to determine what needs to be accomplished each session and to ensure the proper team is involved with the intervention. Good communication up front will avoid issues during sessions. The pet therapy team should follow the directions given by the therapist and they should interact with the patient with the therapist’s consent and guidance.

The use of a handler with the therapy dog allows the therapist to concentrate on the patient without the pressure of also having to manage the dog, which is important for the safety of both the patient and the dog. With the therapist’s primary responsibility dedicated to the patient’s health and the handler’s primary responsibility dedicated to the well-being of the dog, it allows everyone to attend to their specific tasks without having to divide their attention between the person and the dog. This partnership allows for a safe therapy session for all involved.

It is also important for the patient to be informed about the role of handler/dog team. The patient and their family members need to understand who the patient will take direction from and who the dog will get direction from throughout the sessions. The patient should give informed consent to have the details of their case shared with the handler so there are no privacy concerns. The handler should understand that information should not be shared with anyone that is not involved in the patient’s case for compliance with all HIPAA guidelines. It is not uncommon for family members to want to get pictures of the dog or of the dog along with their handler and the patient. While consent may be obtained from the handler or the organization they are representing, it should be discussed prior to any pictures being taken and caution should be exercised so that no other patients are in any photographs. Each facility should have a policy addressing photographs. Due to privacy issues it is usually best to err on the side of caution and as a standard practice the handler should be informed that they should not take pictures of the dog working with any patients. If your program will allow photographs, with the expressed written consent of the patient, then care should be exercised to avoid capturing images of other patients in the pictures.

While it is not impossible to have the therapist work with both the patient and a dog without a handler it could prove to be a little more challenging. Not only does the therapist have to divide their attention between the two to execute an exercise but they also have to monitor the dog for signs of stress throughout the process while simultaneously monitoring the patient for proper form and technique. The therapist would need to have the ability to terminate the use of the dog if signs of stress appear during the exercise session. This would decrease the efficacy of their treatment session to some degree even if purely because they may need to abruptly stop the exercise with a patient for the dog’s well-being. If a therapist certifies their own dog they may not want to use the dog in their treatment sessions because it could actually be a distraction. Trying to act as the dog’s owner/handler looking out for his/her well-being and as the therapist concerned about the safety and treatment of the patient at the same time could present a dilemma for the therapist that could compromise either the dog or the patient.

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