Animal Assisted Psychotherapy

By: Esther B. Hess, Ph.D.

There are two main categories of dogs that are trained to help humans; service dogs and therapy dogs. Service dogs are trained to do specific tasks to support an individual with a disability (including but not limited to physical, psychiatric, intellectual, developmental, and sensory disorders). Service dogs can be professional partners with law enforcement, fire, military, search and rescue, and United States Customs. Once properly trained and certified, all of these animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), allowing them full access to all public buildings/transportation/resources with the community.

In contrast, a therapy dog is specifically trained as a therapeutic agent to provide emotional support to a variety of individuals in settings including educational institutions, hospitals/rehabilitation facilities, retirement homes, and private practices. At this point in time, ADA laws do not protect therapy dogs and access to public buildings/transportation is at the discretion of the individual(s) in charge. Lastly, it is important to remember that not every dog has the temperament to be a ‘working dog.’

Alfie, seen in the above photo, is our Center’s third therapy dog. Although he was ‘groomed’ for working with kids by following the example of our first two therapy dogs, Nuggett and Shlufi, nonetheless, he has had to undergo extensive training and works hard every day to prove himself to worthy of the mantel. 

Alfie is a miniature golden retriever. The golden retriever breed is considered a working class dog under the specifications of the American Kennel Club (AKC). Golden retrievers are hardy dogs with gentle dispositions, and a natural inclination to guard and shepherd. At 50 pounds, Alfie is a midsize dog and he was breed specifically to be just the ‘right size’ for all of the children at Center for the Developing Mind. When Alfie was 9 months old, he and I started our training in a certification process through Pet Partners Therapy Dog Certification. In my training, I had to learn how to simultaneously prioritize the therapeutic needs of the patient while ensuring that Alfie had the necessary training to respond accordingly in a given therapeutic interaction and also act as the dog’s advocate during the session. Alfie’s training consisted of learning all of the basic socialization behaviors-sit, stay, down, come, walking directly at my side on a loose leash, etc.-combined with twenty specific subsets that he had to learn to pass for Certification. These included closely tracking my commands, staying in position while I moved away, being able to leave items on the floor with touching them, and being comfortable interacting with a variety of people. 

Alfie has become a fundamental member of our therapeutic team at Center for the Developing Mind. He has helped numerous children and their families deal with challenges that have included autism, ADHD, social anxieties, severe depression, to even the loss of a parent. I once worked with a child who had the diagnosis of select mutism. This disorder is one of the most severe forms of social anxieties in which a child is unable to speak in public except to select persons and/or in select settings. For a long time, the only one at the Center who this child could communicate with was Alfie. Eventually, when this child did begin to speak to me, I asked her how was it that from the very beginning of her time at Center for the Developing Mind, that she was able to speak to our therapy dog. “Oh,” she answered with a smile, “that’s easy. I was able to talk to Alfie right away, because, Alfie is really good at keeping secrets!”

Therapy dogs are truly ‘social lubricants’ that help patients of all ages lower their defenses more rapidly in the therapeutic environment. While the United States military first promoted therapy dogs for psychiatric patients in 1919, recent research has demonstrated that animal assisted psychotherapy can increase rapport in the therapeutic relationship, enhance and ease the therapeutic process and build trust that supports specific therapeutic goals. 

Dr. Hess is a developmental psychologist and executive director of Center for the Developing Mind. Alfie and Dr. Hess can both be reached through the Center’s website at