Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling (AATC) Competencies Framework

Stewart et al. (2016) created the Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling (AATC) Competencies Framework, which serves as a useful guide for all therapists regardless of specific licensure or discipline. I believe this framework can also serve as a guide in ensuring that the equine specialists co-facilitating with a therapist possesses adequate competency in their role. Although created specifically for therapists who include their own animals in the process, I believe this framework to be useful for all practitioners, even those who do not incorporate their own personal animals. The framework is comprised of three domains: knowledge, skills, and attitudes. In the context of EACP, the knowledge domain encompasses formal training in EACP, knowledge of equines, and knowledge of ethical requirements; the skills domain includes mastery of basic counseling skills, understanding of the scope of practice, use of intentionality, and development of a specialized skill set in EACP; the attitudes domain encompasses equine advocacy, professional development, and personal values. The following sections will use Stewart and colleagues’ (2016) AATC Competencies Framework as a guide in identifying the competencies and experiences needed for therapists and equine specialists seeking to practice EACP.

The Therapist

First and foremost, the therapist must hold a license (this may vary in countries outside of the United States) to practice counseling and psychotherapy. Although they may go by different names, individuals holding licensure as mental health counselors, professional counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and social workers are the most common mental health providers. As a general rule of thumb, a therapist should only provide EACP to the types of clients that they would be qualified to see in any other setting. For example, a psychologist who is not competent to see young children in an office-based practice should not work with young children in EACP. Alternatively, a licensed chemical dependency counselor would only be competent to provide EACP to clients with concerns that fall within their scope according to the standards of their professional organization and state board. Any therapist wanting to work with a new population in EACP (e.g., military veterans) should ensure that they receive the training and peer supervision—the same as they would to ensure competency if they were to begin serving this population in a traditional office-based setting.

As with any new specialty area of practice, therapists seeking to practice EACP must ensure that they receive the appropriate education, training, consultation, and supervision to practice ethically and competently (American Counseling Association, 2014; American Psychological Association, 2017; National Association of Social Workers, 2017; Stewart et al., 2016; Wycoff, 2019). Therapists who cannot demonstrate competency based on the ethical codes noted here arc at risk of disciplinary or legal action by their professional association and/or licensing board. Furthermore, practicing in an area in which one does not have competence can elevate a therapist’s risk of a negligence and being sued for malpractice (Wclfel, 2010).

Knowledge Domain

Formal Training

Given the unique nature of this work it is essential that therapists complete a formal evaluative course to gain the requisite knowledge needed to practice in this area. It is important that the therapist’s training also includes learning how to effectively provide EACP interventions and understanding the humananimal bond. It is also important that therapists first practice EACP under the supervision of a qualified EACP therapist in order to receive feedback and an assessment of skills. The more knowledge that the therapist has, the more effective they will be in facilitating EACP.

I also recommend specialized coursework in related areas. It will be very useful for all therapists to complete coursework in group counseling, not only to work with groups in EACP but also to be able to better manage and attend to group dynamics between the group comprised of the therapist, equine specialist, client, and equine(s), even in individual therapy. Other recommendations include taking the experiential courses often offered as electives such as play therapy, art therapy, dance therapy, music therapy, adventure-based therapy, and/or wilderness therapy to obtain a solid knowledge base in facilitating experiential therapies. Many of the skills learned in these courses will be transferable to an EACP practice. Finally, the therapist should have a basic understanding of clinical supervision in order to better facilitate debriefing sessions with the equine specialist and/or volunteers and to process any distressing content or conflicts that might arise during the EACP session, within the treatment team, or between the client and members of the treatment team or volunteers (PATH Inti., 2017).

Equine Knowledge

It is important that the therapist possesses a working knowledge of equines including ethology; training techniques, and ways to establish and maintain a strong working relationship between the client and equine. Ethological knowledge includes equine physiology, behavior, history, care and husbandly, and limitations of partnering with equines. An understanding of training techniques is important to ensure that the equine is prepared to participate in EACP, and that the therapist can manage equine behavior in session. Understanding the dynamics of the human-equine relationship including potential stressors, signs of stress, and ability to manage equine stress in session is important to helping build a strong working relationship between the client and the equine.

From my personal experience, therapists lacking this basic knowledge are likely to be less effective in facilitating the relationship and may unintentionally and inaccurately conceptualize and process the client’s interactions with the equines. However, I should note that there are others who believe that a therapist should be less familiar with equines so as to not project onto the equine for the client. (For a more comprehensive discussion of this issue, sec the Considerations of Including the Equine Specialist section that follows.) In any event, should the therapist be considered less than expert in any of these areas, they must partner with a competent equine specialist.

Ethical Knowledge

The therapist should possess a thorough understanding of the ethical requirements of both clinical practice and interaction with equines, with the ability to integrate both. These requirements include understanding and recognition of the specific ethical implications of EACP, understanding any ethical and multicultural implications relevant to EACP, establishing a safe environment for both clients and equines, and using effective risk management strategies. See Chapters 11 and 12 for a detailed review on these topics.

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