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A Beginner’s Guide to Animal-Assisted Intervention Terminology

Haley Etheridge, OTD, OTR/L
Pet Partners dog with Sheriff
Pet Partners dog with Sheriff

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of animal-assisted interventions, you’re in the right place! The first step to understanding animal-assisted interventions is to have a grasp on the terminology. With animal-assisted interventions gaining popularity, more and more terms have been created to attempt to describe these services. At Pet Partners, we are committed to using appropriate terminology, not only to maintain our gold standard, but in order to accurately promote and advance our field.

Industry Terminology

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Human-Animal Bond
The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that positively influences the health and well-being of both. Dr. Leo Bustad, one of the founders of Delta Society (now Pet Partners), is credited with creating this term and definition.

Human-Animal Interaction
This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.

Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI)
Animal-assisted interventions are goal-oriented and structured interventions that intentionally incorporate animals in health, education, and human service for the purpose of therapeutic gains and improved health and wellness. Think of this as an umbrella term. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), animal-assisted education (AAE), and animal-assisted activities (AAA) are all forms of animal-assisted interventions. In all of these interventions, the animal may be part of a volunteer therapy animal team working under the direction of a professional or an animal that belongs to the professional himself.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)
Animal-assisted therapy is a goal-oriented, planned, structured, and documented therapeutic intervention directed by health and human service providers as part of their profession. A wide variety of disciplines may incorporate AAT. Possible practitioners could include physicians, occupational therapists, physical therapists, certified therapeutic recreation specialists, nurses, social workers, speech therapists, or mental health professionals.

Animal-Assisted Activity (AAA)
Animal-assisted activities provide opportunities for motivational, educational, and/or recreational benefits to enhance quality of life. While more informal in nature, these activities are delivered by a specially trained professional, paraprofessional, and/or volunteer, in partnership with an animal that meets specific criteria for suitability.

Animal-Assisted Education (AAE)
Animal-assisted education is a goal-oriented, planned, and structured intervention directed by a general education or special education professional. The focus of the activities is on academic goals, prosocial skills, and cognitive functioning with student progress being both measured and documented.

Human-animal bond terms

NOTE: The term “pet therapy” is misleading and should be avoided. It was widely used several decades ago to refer to animal training programs. The preferred terms that we use today (AAT, AAE, AAA) imply that the animal is acting as a motivating force to enhance the treatment provided by a well-trained person.

Therapy Animal
Therapy animals, such as those who participate in the Pet Partners Therapy Animal Program, provide affection and comfort to members of the public, typically in facility settings such as hospitals, assisted living, and schools. These animals have a special aptitude for interacting with members of the public and enjoy doing so. Therapy animal handlers volunteer their time to visit with their animals in the community.

A therapy animal has no special rights of access, except in those facilities where they are welcomed. They may not enter businesses with “no pets” policies or accompany their handler in the cabin of an airplane regardless of their therapy animal designation.

service dogAssistance Animal
Assistance animals, also called service animals, are defined as dogs (and in some cases miniature horses) that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.

Assistance dogs are considered working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Guide, hearing, and service dogs are permitted, in accordance with the ADA, to accompany a person with a disability almost anywhere the general public is allowed. This includes restaurants, businesses, and on airplanes.

Guide Dog
An assistance animal that is trained to perform tasks for individuals with visual impairments or blindness.

Hearing Dog
Dog who assists individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing by alerting them to sounds in the environment.

Service Dog
Assists individuals with disabilities other than vision or hearing impairments, including physical disabilities, psychiatric diagnoses, and autism.

To learn more about assistance animals, visit Assistance Dogs International.

Emotional Support Animal
An emotional support animal, sometimes referred to as a comfort animal, is a pet that provides therapeutic support to a person with a mental illness. To be designated as an emotional support animal, the pet must be prescribed by a licensed mental health professional for a person with a mental illness. The prescription must state that the individual has an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, and that the presence of the animal is necessary for the individual’s mental health.
Per the ADA, individuals with emotional support animals do not have the same rights to public access as individuals with a service dog. Emotional support animals may only accompany their owners in public areas with the express permission of each individual venue and/or facility management. Emotional support animals may live with their owners in locations covered by the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) regardless of a “no pets” policy, and may travel with their owners on airplanes with documentation as required by the airline. Although most frequently dogs, other species may be prescribed as emotional support animals.

See this chart for a helpful overview of the similarities and differences between therapy animals, assistance animals, and emotional support animals.

Pet Partners Terminology

The process through which a therapy animal team becomes part of the Pet Partners Therapy Animal Program. This process confirms that the team meets the requirements of our program and is suitable to participate in AAI.

Note: This is different than a certification. A certification implies that an independent third party has assessed an individual for mastery of knowledge in skills. At this time, no independent certifying bodies for therapy animals exist.

The human end of the leash in a therapy animal team. The handler’s role is to support their animal during visits, advocate for their animal’s welfare, and ensure that visits are safe, effective, and enjoyable for everyone involved. Handlers complete the Pet Partners Handler Course to learn and deploy these skills.

Therapy Animal Team
A unique combination of one handler and one animal working together that registers through Pet Partners to participate in volunteer AAI in their community.

Team Evaluator (TE)
A volunteer leader who completes required prerequisite volunteer hours, coursework, discussion, and in-person practicum to verify their suitability to conduct evaluations of prospective and renewing Pet Partners therapy animal teams.

Volunteer Instructor (VI)
A volunteer leader who completes required training to lead an in-person workshop version of the Pet Partners Handler Course in their community.

Now that you can talk the talk, it’s time to walk the walk!

Using appropriate terminology is at the heart of our organization; using standardized language decreases confusion, increases understanding of our roles, and maintains a culture of respect for our volunteers and clients. If this vocab lesson piqued your interest, you might be a good addition to the Pet Partners family. Learn about our registration process, and don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions related to terminology and AAI as a whole.