Spotlight On: Animal-Assisted Therapy Teams


If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you will interact with a number of different members of the health care team at various times during treatment. When you walk into a doctor’s office, hospital, or cancer center, you may encounter nurses, physician assistants, social workers, doctors—the list goes on. In the Spotlight On series, we talk with some of these health care professionals to learn more about their jobs and the role they play in providing high-quality cancer care.

A pet therapy team consists of a person called a handler and a therapy animal, both trained to provide healing interactions with patients. Here, Leslie Horton, RN, describes this type of care. She has more than 30 years of experience in critical care nursing. In addition, Leslie started the Animal-Assisted Care (AAC) Program on the Inova Fairfax Hospital Campus in 2001. She is certified through the International Association of Canine Professionals as a certified dog trainer and a professional dog trainer instructor.

1. What is pet therapy?

LH: Actually, “pet therapy” is an outdated term. We use the term “animal-assisted therapy” because the old term implied 2 incorrect thoughts:

  1. The therapy only involves petting a dog.

  2. The dog or pet is the one receiving therapy.

Here are the current definitions:

Therapy Dog Team. A person called a handler and a therapy dog have been trained to provide interactions with patients, incarcerated individuals, and people in reading programs.

Currently, dogs are the only species approved by the Society of Hospital Epidemiologists of America (SHEA) for use in health care environments.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT). A credentialed professional sets therapeutic goals, guides interactions between a patient and an animal, measures progress toward therapy goals, and evaluates the process. It’s an integral part of a patient’s treatment process.

Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) or Visitation. These are visits provided by a therapy animal team but not measured by a credentialed professional, such as a teacher, doctor, or social worker.

Personal Assistance Therapy (PAT).This introduces patients with disabilities to the benefits of service animals and the application process for obtaining a service animal. These services aren’t limited to people with visual impairments. Service animals perform a wide variety of tasks for an equally wide assortment of physical and mental limitations.

Animal-Assisted Interaction (AAI). Also called Animal-Assisted Intervention, this term refers to any or all types of therapy animal team functions: AAA, AAT, and PAT. It refers to a therapy animal team promoting physical, emotional, and mental health through the human-animal bond.

2. How did you get involved in animal-assisted therapy?

Leslie Horton, RN (LH): After my dog Chug attended training school, one of my patients asked to meet him, and the visit went well. Then, I took training courses from an organization that registers therapy dogs and other therapy pets. When I returned, I presented the program to the board at Inova Fairfax, and the rest is history.

In my daily life, I use a service dog trained in mobility tasks. I need this assistance because I’ve been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As a result, I train both therapy dogs for animal-assisted interactions and service dogs for individuals with disabilities. There’s a difference between the 2 types.

3. Are there any research studies that provide evidence of the help that animals can provide?share on twitter

LH: There are multiple research studies. However, many of them are anecdotal and not clinically measured. Currently, we are conducting a clinical study evaluating how it affects patients with traumatic brain injuries and their level of consciousness. We also conducted a study that proved following SHEA and Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) guidelines resulted in a 0% animal-transmitted infection rate. Meanwhile, another clinical study was done in collaboration with the American Heart Association. It showed the benefits of dogs and family in healing heart injuries, such as heart attacks.

4. What are the effects of animal-assisted therapy in cancer care?share on twitter

LH: The dogs help patients in the following ways:

  • Decrease signs and symptoms of pain and discomfort

  • Reduce signs and symptoms of depression

  • Encourage movement by walking or playing ball

  • Provide distraction in the oncology care environment

  • Provide comfort to people with cancer who are near the end of their life.

For example, we’ve seen people with a bone marrow transplant walk their required rehabilitation distances with the dogs. We’ve seen patients smile and receive hope and comfort with the dogs. And we’ve seen people near the end of life loosen facial muscle tension through the comfort of having an animal in bed with them.

5. Can I train my dog to become a therapy animal for people with cancer?share on twitter

LH: Multiple organizations provide training for therapy animal teams. 

A pet suited for this type of service should be comfortable around hospital and health care environments, other therapy animal teams, patients, and staff. The animal should remain under the handler’s control, and the team should exude confidence and safety.

Teams who want to work with people with cancer should receive education in SHEA and APIC standards. This prevents animal-transmitted infections among patients who have weakened immune systems.

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