How To Become an Animal-Assisted Therapist in 8 Steps
Updated June 28, 2023
A woman stands petting an orange cat next to a list with the title "Types of Animal-Assisted Therapy Jobs" and these jobs:
• Employees of educational institutions
• Eldercare professionals
Animal-assisted therapy can help people cope with mental conditions or improve their lives. An animal-assisted therapist helps facilitate therapeutic interactions between therapy animals and their clients. Discovering the steps you can take to become an animal-assisted therapist can help inform your career decisions.
In this article, we discuss the role of an animal-assisted therapist, their work environment and average salary, and we list the steps necessary to become an animal-assisted therapist.
What is an animal-assisted therapist?
An animal-assisted therapist is a health professional who uses animal interactions to help treat clients' mental and physical health conditions. Animals can help treat conditions such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder or help people develop social skills. While dogs are a common animal trained to perform therapeutic tasks, animal-assisted therapists can also treat clients through interactions with horses, cats, pigs and birds. An animal-assisted therapist may own a therapy animal or work with other facilities to connect therapy animals with clients.
What does an animal-assisted therapist do?
Here are the primary responsibilities of an animal-assisted therapist:
Scheduling client sessions: Some animal-assisted therapists may organize their own schedule of therapy sessions. Others may work for an office where an administrative assistant handles this task.
Coordinating care plans: Animal-assisted therapists may work with other medical and mental health professionals to provide animal-assisted therapy as part of a larger care plan for clients. They can also design care plans to help clients address conditions or abilities they want to improve.
Assessing patients' conditions: Animal-assisted therapists with mental health credentials can assess and diagnose patient conditions. This can help therapists facilitate discussions about patients' goals for animal-assisted therapy.
Conducting therapy sessions with animals: An animal-assisted therapist can use their knowledge of a patient's health goals to conduct therapy sessions that can help patients improve their ability to cope with certain conditions or build their abilities, such as social skills.
Supervising animals during therapy sessions: Animal-assisted therapists can watch animals to ensure their behavior meets their clients' therapeutic needs.
Traveling to therapy session locations: An animal-assisted therapist may travel to sessions in clients' residences or medical facilities.
Maintaining therapy training and certifications for therapy animals: Animal-assisted therapists who own therapy animals can ensure their animals' training and certifications remain in good standing.
Related: What Is a Recreational Therapist?
How to become an animal-assisted therapist
Below is a list of steps you can take to pursue this career:
1. Earn a bachelor's degree
The first step you can take to pursue a career as an animal-assisted therapist is to earn a bachelor's degree in an area like psychology or social sciences. These degree areas can help prepare you for a career in the mental health field and give you the knowledge you need for graduate school.
Related: 15 Top Psychology Degree Jobs
2. Earn a master's degree
Next, you can earn a master's degree to gain the skills you need to conduct therapy sessions. While this step isn't required for animal-assisted therapists, it can give you more career skills and enable you to earn licensing and certifications needed for mental health professions. It may also allow you to earn a higher salary.
3. Gain experience
While you earn a master's degree, you can gain experience providing mental health services to others. This has a few benefits:
Learning opportunities: Gaining experience in providing counseling or therapy to clients as a master's degree student can help you learn more about this career field. This experience may give you ideas for specialties and specific client groups, like children, you may want to work with in your career.
Ability to network: The opportunity to provide mental health care as a graduate student may provide networking opportunities with other mental health professionals, which may help you get a job once you graduate.
Resume-building opportunities: Additionally, the experience you gain as a graduate student can count as work experience on your resume, allowing you to show employers your ability to work with clients in a therapeutic setting.
4. Earn an animal-assisted therapy certificate
Next, you can earn a certificate in animal-assisted therapy or a similar subject. There are two main paths you can take to pursue this qualification:
Online certification: You can earn an animal-assisted therapy certification online, which consists of a mix of instruction and experience. To pursue this option, you can apply to an online program and find an animal-assisted therapy program in your area where you can gain the necessary experience to pursue this career.
Graduate-level certification: You can also pursue a certificate in animal-assisted therapy through a graduate program. These programs may consist of online and in-person instruction and include a research component.
Here are some of the subjects you can learn as you earn a certificate in animal-assisted therapy:
Animal behavior: Earning a certification in animal-assisted therapy can give you in-depth knowledge on animal behavior and body language.
Human-animal bonds: You can also learn about the science behind the bonds humans can form with animals and how these bonds can facilitate beneficial therapeutic experiences between therapy clients and animals.
Animal training: You may learn about training techniques for animals who help you perform animal-assisted therapy.
Ethics and laws: As you earn this qualification, you can learn about the ethics therapists follow and laws that exist to protect clients and health professionals.
Creating programs: Earning a certification can give you the knowledge you need to create treatment programs for your clients.
5. Obtain additional licenses and certifications
If you choose to pursue a master's degree, you can also earn licenses and certifications that can allow you to practice as a licensed counselor or therapist. Licensing requirements and types can vary by state. Here are a few licensing options you can pursue:
Licensed Professional Counselor: If you want to use animal-assisted therapy for your counseling clients, you can earn a license to practice as an LPC.
Psychologist: You can earn a license to practice psychology and offer animal-assisted therapy to the clients you treat.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker: Another career path you can take is to become an LCSW and offer animal-assisted therapy to your clients.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor: You can also pursue an LMHC qualification that can allow you to help your clients improve their mental health through animal-assisted therapy.
Throughout the process of earning qualifications, you can network with other health professionals to learn about employers in your area and job opportunities. Networking can also give you the opportunity to develop your professional skills. To network with other animal-assisted therapists, you can join professional organizations. Here are a few types of organizations you can join:
Equine therapy organizations: If you're interested in helping people through equine therapy, you can join professional organizations to network with other professionals specializing in this area.
Therapy dog organizations: You can also join professional organizations for therapy dog owners to network with others in similar roles to an animal-assisted therapist and learn about job opportunities.
Organizations for mental health professionals: You can also join organizations for mental health professionals to network with others in the field.
7. Write a resume
Before you look for jobs for animal-assisted therapists, you can write a resume that emphasizes your skills and qualifications in this field. Here are a few resume tips for animal-assisted therapists:
Match your resume to the job description. Read the description for the job you want and include keywords and skills you share with the job description on your resume. This can help you show employers you're qualified for the open position.
List your education, licenses and certifications. You can ensure employers see your qualifications by listing them prominently on your resume.
Write a strong resume objective. You can improve your chances of getting an interview by writing a resume objective that emphasizes your strongest skills and qualifications.
8. Apply to jobs
Once you've earned the necessary qualifications, you can use your resume to apply to jobs. To learn about open positions, you can check job boards, consult with professionals in your network and research employers in your area.
Work environment for an animal-assisted therapist
An animal-assisted therapist may work in a private office or visit the following facilities to provide animal-assisted therapy:
Nursing homes: Animal-assisted therapists can visit people in nursing homes to provide animal-assisted therapy to residents.
Private residences: An animal-assisted therapist can bring a therapy animal to a client's private residence for therapy sessions.
Correctional facilities: Animal-assisted therapists can also visit jails and prisons to provide therapy to inmates.
Medical facilities: An animal-assisted therapist can bring therapy animals to hospitals and other medical facilities to provide animal-assisted therapy to patients as part of their health plans.
Salary and job outlook for an animal-assisted therapist
According to Indeed Salaries, recreational therapists (including animal-assisted therapists) can make an average base salary of $49,826 per year. Your salary may depend on your location, experience and qualifications. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs for recreational therapists will grow 8%, which is faster than average, between 2019 and 2029.
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