Ethical Considerations in Animal Assisted Therapy

Potential Potholes and the Road Ahead

Guest author:  Kirby L. Wycoff, Psy.D., NCSP

From Reading Education Assistance Dogs, to Autism Support Dogs, and everything in between, we are seeing more and more animals serving humans in need. More recently, we have seen the likes of “Canine Support Dogs” or “Crisis Comfort Dogs” showing up in the aftermath of the school shootings, natural disasters and terrorist events.  But even with such great need and human suffering, when animals are used in service of humans, the animal’s suitability and preparation for the work, as well as the handler’s ability to advocate for their AAI (Animal Assisted Intervention) partner, deserves our serious consideration."

The Habit of Excellence

I admire excellence in any field, whether the excellence is shown in amazing cakes or handpainted silk jackets, in being able to fix almost anything mechanical (thank you, dear husband, for possessing that particular excellence!), in creating music that sings in my heart long after the final notes have faded from my ears. I have been privileged to watch many trainers who could create an agreement between themselves and a dog that was rich with nuance and harmony.

Permission, Not Permissive


Out of control!

Impulse issues!


Lacking self control!

These labels and many more are readily applied to so many dogs. Yet the handler often isn't even considered to be part of the dynamic that contributes to the dog's behavior. 

Relationship Centered Training (RCT) always considers the relationship and how dog and human interact to create behavior. Not surprisingly, the human end of the leash sometimes contributes to unwanted behavior without intending to do so.

Even Though…

Even Though. . .

All of us can appreciate what might excite a dog, even to the point of tuning out his handler. It could be another dog, people approaching, food, toys, wildlife, a cat or squirrel, anticipation of a happy event like a walk or being in class. We understand that the world is full of many things our dogs may find far more interesting at times than a conversation with us.

Connection & Control

If you're hanging on to your dog's body, it's because you've lost his mind!

Control is not always about connection, but connection is what makes control possible.

Connection is about two minds working together. If the connection is not there between you and your dog, you will be unable to direct him, help him or really train him.

Dog is in the Details

One trainer wrote:  “A dog who puts its feet on you, a dog who seems to like pinning you down in your chair with its head on your lap is not being affectionate but rather treating you like a member of the pack that can be pushed, stepped on, and held down.  Dr. Karen Overall warns that such signs should be read for what they are. Dominance aggression in an overt form should come as no sudden surprise if this kind of behavior has been observed in the past."