University offers Animal-Assisted Therapy Certificate Program, welcomes non-students

The Animal Assisted Therapy Certificate Program offers students an opportunity to examine the power of a human-animal bond.

The program was created in 2007 by Amy Johnson, special projects coordinator of the School of Nursing.

The courses are all offered online, but a couple of assignments involve meeting with members in the student’s major.

“The fields of interest have broadened,” said Marilyn Mouradjin, teacher of Populations in Animal Assisted Therapy. “Some go into substance abuse, or domestic abuse. It just depends on where their interests lie. Some have never done therapy, so I have this wide variety of students that learn from each other.”

AAT certificate program

The certificate program is completely accessible to everyone, and students do  not necessarily have to go to Oakland University to enroll.

Students from other countries such as Germany, China, Japan, Israel, Mexico and Australia have taken advantage of the accessibility.

The program is split up into five separate modules.

Modules one and two are Intro to Animal Assisted Therapy and Psychology of AAT. Both courses are offered in the fall.

Modules three and four are Special Populations in AAT and Working with Animals. These courses will be offered in the winter semester, and the final course is offered the first half of spring semester. The final course counts as the capstone project.

Through this program, Johnson hopes to educate people on how to use animal assisted therapy properly for whatever field of interest they may have.

“It’s more than just bringing a dog in the classroom. That’s not therapy,” Johnson said. “Say for example, you’re in a reading program. The handler can take the student and the dog in a separate room to practice reading. The dog is non-judgmental and patient, which allows the kids to practice in a safe environment. That’s one example of how it is applied therapeutically.”

According to Cindy Sifonis, teacher of Psychology of AAT, the program gives students a very firm foundation.

“After this course, they have the ability to start their own practice, or incorporate it into their practice,” she said. “I think it’s a really valuable certificate for them.”

Although dogs are typically used, other animals can be used for therapy, as well.

“I encourage students to get out of the mindset of just using dogs,” Mouradjian said. “The dogs are the favorite therapy animal, but there are certain populations that might be afraid of them. (It could be that it’s) culturally unaccepted, for various reasons it might be easier to talk to a rabbit, ferret or a cat. Equine therapy, which involves using horses, is very big right now.”

Animal-human bond

Johnson has started her own AAT program called Teacher’s Pet. Through this program Johnson has seen the power of the animal-human bond firsthand.

Teacher’s Pet currently visits five at-risk youth schools.

Johnson feels the bond the youth make with their dogs allows them to open up on a new level.

“There are things discovered through this bond I would not be able to make them see as a therapist,” Johnson said. “They have to experience it. That’s what great about this kind of therapy, it’s experiential. You can’t teach someone to feel empathy, they have to feel it. There are ways you can get to the heart of a matter with a dog you could never get alone.”

Contact Multimedia Reporter Kailee Mathias via email at [email protected]