The practice of including animals and nature in human healthcare is complex and dynamic and involves many moving parts. At its root, this type of therapeutic intervention invites clients to have a felt sense of their experiences, and to recognize how they are affected and how they affect others. This can be provocative and deeply transformative.
Unlike typical therapy provided in a four-walls office setting, therapists providing these emerging interventions are required to understand the intricacies and reciprocal relationships between many different systems while protecting the wellbeing of the client and all others involved in the service, both human and non-human alike.
In the P.A.C.E. Model ™ of Animal-Assisted Therapy, Tanya Bailey of the University of Minnesota visually demonstrates the scope of knowledge a professional must understand to competently provide, or even research, a human-animal-nature interaction.
At present, there are no standardized core competency requirements for these professionals, and many of the trainings are model-specific and don’t include a solid foundation in issues of safety, ethics, professional practice, horsemanship skills, and the of intricacies of the horse-human relationship. This further complicates matters as each individual provider is therefore likely to have differing levels (and types) of experience and training, and they may not be educated in all these areas of core competency or use the same terminology to describe their services.
Researchers studying human-animal-nature interactions encounter challenges related to the many variations in approach, terminology, and practical applications of the different models. Much of the existing research is of questionable validity due to methodological concerns that are a direct result of the lack of standardization across the industry. In many research projects, it is common to see comparisons drawn between vastly different service types, sometimes even comparing therapy services provided by licensed healthcare professionals to to non-therapy services offered by skills-based instructors, life or professional development coaches, or educators.
For the safety and wellbeing of both the clients and the animals, it is important to begin advocating for a new level of scholarship related to the study and practice of including horses, other animals, and nature in human healthcare. Here are a few recommendations:
- Support the clear separation between therapy and non-therapy services through the correct use of terminology and practical application.
- Learn as much as possible about scope of practice. Not only for yourself, but to make certain you are not offering services that infringe upon those provided by a licensed healthcare professional.
- Gain a level of understanding about the competencies any professional including animals in human healthcare should know, regardless of model is used.
- Learn as much as you possibly can from non-biased academic sources about the animal(s) you work with. Each species and each individual animal shows happiness, pain, fear, burnout, and stress differently. It is of great importance to understand the ethics of appropriating another species for human wellbeing, and to respond accordingly.
- Learn as much as you can about the diversity of the industry rather than subscribing to, or using, only one model. Remember, no one method or theory works for all clients all the time.
- And remember, don’t be species-centric! While one client might benefit from working with a horse, another may benefit more from spending time with a chicken or taking a walk in nature.