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Animal-Assisted Therapy: What’s all the Bark About?


Our therapy dogs, Myles and Buddy, were very busy the month of November. They were asked to take part in a course given by NCTide on the importance of using animals during behavioral health therapy. Led by Jill Queen, the president of NCTide, Kristin Walker, therapy dog handler, and Barbara Love, mental health counselor.  Kristin also presented 2 additional sessions on what is trending next in behavioral health technology.

nctideWe decided to make this course experiential. We had about thirty participants join and had them sit in a large circle. Myles and Buddy sat in the middle of the circle with Barbara Love and Kristin Walker. Thankfully someone remembered to bring a lint roller! All we saw were a sea of black pant legs begging to be covered in hair.  

Kristin and Barbara have been working together for five years at Haywood Regional Medical Center in the behavioral health unit. Kristin has been bringing Myles just about every week to take part in group therapy. She decided the providers at NCTide would get a much better idea of how therapy dogs bring that sense of well-being, hope, and calm by having everyone in the room be a patient. Kristin and Barbara began by talking about some of the experiences they have had working in the mental health unit.

One story really touched my heart and left everyone in the room misty-eyed. Barbara explained that a new patient had not spoken a word or made direct eye contact with anyone since her arrival. She had been there for several days. When Kristin brought Myles in to visit he immediately went directly to this patient and dropped a ball in her lap, then waited patiently while she smiled and talked to him and Kristin. She fed him treats and threw him the ball. It was as if another person emerged before her eyes. All of the counselors were in shock. One of the things the staff had done over a course of six months was keep track of who Myles gravitated towards the most during every visit. One-hundred percent of the time he goes to the patient that is having the hardest time. This person was no exception. Sadly, she is no longer with us, but everyone in the unit felt the visit with Myles was a bright spot in this woman’s journey with mental health. Kristin had not heard this story before.

IMG_20111013_174204Normally Kristin arrives with Myles, they work with the patients and then they leave.  Many times she doesn’t even know the patients’ names unless they volunteer that information. After the tissue box made its way around the room, Kristin had everyone hold a tennis ball and pass it around the circle while she talked about the different methods that can be used with a dog to interact with a patient. Everyone was in awe as Myles and Buddy followed that ball with laser-like focus as it was being passed from person to person. This activity is important at the beginning of every group therapy session. Kristin has a limited amount of time and typically does not see the same patients more than once. Getting everyone engaged quickly is necessary. “I try to be as unassuming as possible. I sit on the floor and encourage everyone to join me. There is typically some discomfort about my presence with some of the patients so going straight to the floor seems to help everyone relax. Then it is all about the dogs. Before anyone has a chance to be uncomfortable I bring out the ball and Myles begins to systematically make his way to every person in the circle. Everyone loves playing catch with Myles and it gets people moving. It helps them get out of their head, and instead, makes them focus on the furry creature in front of them. I tell them that dog slobber has curative powers which usually gets everyone laughing”, said Kristin.

We were by far the loudest session at the conference. Within ten minutes of starting everyone in the room was laughing, clapping, cheering, and smiling. Participants had questions about how to get a dog registered as a therapy dog, what types of counseling sessions work best with dogs, what are the best breed of dog for a therapy dog, and can you bill for this kind of counseling session. Jill was able to answer all of the questions around billing for sessions which are outlined below. Kristin took care of the other questions, “There is no ‘best breed’ for a therapy dog. The dog must be obedient and loving and remember it isn’t just about the dog. When you go through the registration testing to become a team with your dog, you are being tested as well. A therapy dog can be used in individual and group sessions and with children and adults.”

Kristin and Myles have flown across the United States speaking in front of mental health professionals on the benefits of animal-assisted therapy. She has also agreed to co-host a series of webinars on the same topic via some of the partners listed below.  We will update this page with the webinar dates as soon as possible.

TDInc_LogoKristin’s dogs are registered through Therapy Dogs, Inc.



Provided by Jill Queen

What Is It? Animal assisted therapy is a counseling technique/modality where patients play/interact with animals to improve their mental, social and even physical well-being.

Who Can Provide It? Only licensed/credentialed individuals can bill Medicaid for outpatient therapy services that include using animal assisted therapy as a treatment modality. Outside of Behavioral Health, animal assisted therapy is often used in the following settings:  Hospitals, Intermediate Care Facilities, Occupational and Physical Therapy offices/centers/clinics, Recreational Therapy Programs in Nursing Homes, Rehabilitation Settings, Senior Centers, and Adult Day Facilities.

How Can I Provide It?  A specific degree program related to the field of animal assisted therapy is not available; however, some schools do offer associate-level programs and some graduate schools offer graduate-level classes and/or animal assisted therapy certificate programs through their continuing education departments. These programs tend to be designed for working licensed professionals that already work in related fields, such as therapist/counselors, psychologist, social workers, etc. In order to provide animal assisted therapy, you must have received training in the area and have a certificate to use your animal in animal assisted therapy. A certification in animal assisted therapy is available through some on-line education programs and through animal therapy organizations such as Delta Society, Therapy Dogs International; however, these certifications alone do not allow an individual to bill or provide Medicaid billable services

When Can I Provide It? Animal assisted therapy is not a service, it is a treatment modality/counseling technique utilized in various settings including outpatient or inpatient settings as part of outpatient or inpatient services and treatment programs.

Where Can I Provide It? Individuals with a certification or registration as a therapy dog team (handler/dog) or associate degree in animal assisted therapy can work in Hospitals, Intermediate Care Facilities, Occupational and Physical Therapy offices/centers/clinics, Recreational Therapy Programs in Nursing Homes, Rehabilitation Settings, Senior Centers, and Adult Day Facilities; however, animal assisted therapy is provided as part of the overall treatment services to the patient and not as a separate service billed to payer sources such as Medicaid, Medicare and Private Insurances. Kristin has been asked by several therapists and patients to be a part of an individual therapy session. These sessions are protected by the same privacy laws that govern other sessions.

Helpful Resources on Animal Assisted Therapy




Animal Assisted Therapy, animal therapy, behavioral health, counseling, dogs, healing, mental health, recovery, Rehabilitation, therapy, therapy dogs, trauma, wellness

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