For this article, we have the opportunity to chat with an animal therapist, also called a pet therapy practitioner, and an experienced animal health technician.
Her name is Mélissa Patenaude-Monette 🙂
We hope you’ll love the interview.
Hi Mélissa, thanks for joining us to help us find out more about this branch of animal health, which is both appreciated by all and a little mysterious at times.
First, tell us what led you to take this training course?
I decided to take this course to combine my two passions, i.e. animals and helping people.
For me, the relationship between animals and humans is more than beneficial on many levels, and by graduating as an animal mediation practitioner (Zoothérapeute) I can now offer an adapted service in the company of my animal.
Can you tell us about the beginnings of zootherapy around the world? How did the idea of using animals to help people get started?
The alliance between animals and humans goes back a very long way.
Human evolution took place in co-development with animals. Humans are basically sociable primates capable of interaction. Dogs evolved and were domesticated, as were pigs and many other species.
Animals have been part of human life from prehistoric times right up to the present day. All this has evolved over the years, for example, the presence of dogs in psychiatry in 1919.
We can recall the presence of dogs with the war wounded in 1942.
In the 1950s, we have Boris Levinson, named the father of zootherapy, who works with his dog partner with children suffering from autism.
There are also several zootherapy congresses around the world, such as the Congrès International de Zoothérapie in Quebec, Green Chimneys in the United States, ISAZ (International Society for Anthrozoology), and IAHAIO in Paris.
What surprised you most about what you learned in these courses?
At the beginning of my courses, I tried to be very structured and organized in my interventions.
Yes, you have to know where you want to go and have an objective in mind, but you’re working with an animal and humans, and that leaves a lot of room for adaptation as you go along. What surprised me most was the animal’s non-verbal way of communicating.
Never minimize the animal’s non-verbal abilities, because they reflect people’s feelings. Letting the animal interact gives way to indescribable moments that I can’t even put into words, so much so that the moment is lived and cannot be named.
These moments are why pet therapy gives me the chills and keeps me in the profession.
What benefits have you observed with zootherapy?
Pet therapy allows people to evolve in the presence of an animal.
It works on several levels, such as acquiring new academic and personal skills, reducing stress/anxiety, reducing isolation, organization, self-esteem, and emotional management.
Are there any species of animal that are more (or less) interesting for this type of intervention?
I believe that all animals bring a different perspective to treatment.
Each species has its own character and brings a completely different vision and interaction to the intervention. There’s also the possibility of choosing the animal according to the client’s tastes and what leverage the animal can give us during the intervention.
The animals most frequently seen in zootherapy are farm animals: goats, horses, pigs, and alpacas.
Small rodents such as guinea pigs, rabbits, and hedgehogs.
And, of course, dogs, cats, and birds.
Then I realized that your own dog was also ‘in training’. How is it going so far? Is it difficult for an animal to be certified?
Raya, my little Chihuahua, did her final year of training with me and received her certification.
First of all, you have to have an animal that’s inclined to approach people, that’s the first thing that’s very important. Throughout our training, we’re taught how our dog should behave in an intervention. We must take the time to do several exercises and desensitize our animal, if it has certain fears, such as elevators, wheelchairs, or other fears.
Our pet needs to feel at ease during an intervention and be able to rely on his master to validate that he’s doing the right thing. Raya has been evaluated by a canine behaviorist who is a certified Canine Good Neighbor Evaluator. This evaluation consists of seeing how the animal acts in different situations, whether it has any fears, acceptance of strangers, and many other points. Following this evaluation, our pet can be put into pet therapy or not, depending on its temperament and the way it reacts to certain situations.
Unfortunately, not all dogs pass this evaluation, and some have to work on certain things and redo the evaluation afterward to obtain certification.
Finally, what would you like people to remember about zootherapy?
Animal mediation is not supported.
There’s a big difference between zoo animation, accompaniment, and intervention.
Zootherapy enables people in need to move forward in the presence of an animal, in a variety of situations.
We create specialized interventions tailored to the person’s needs, to help them progress on many levels.
Zootherapy has its place in many environments, such as specialized classes, CHSLDs, RPAs, drug addiction, and many others. The zootherapist will also have to work with many other professions, such as psychologists, sexologists, TES, TS, physiotherapists, teachers, and many others.
Don’t hesitate to consult the Corporation des Zoothérapeutes du Québec to find a certified and qualified practitioner who can help you with your approach.
Finally, never underestimate animal mediation, as it can bring a great deal to people, facilitate the task of caregivers and enable patients to evolve in a stimulating way.
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Francis Lagacé has been a member of the Ordre des médecins vétérinaires du Québec since 2004. He practiced for 16 years in several veterinary clinics across Canada. He treated animals of all types, mainly cats, dogs and exotic animals (rabbits, rodents, ferrets, birds, reptiles). Since 2020 he has been working in the field of veterinary pharmacovigilance. You can find him on LinkedIn.