Shelter Dogs in Animal Assisted Interventions

The original Spanish-language version of this post first appeared in Animales Que Suman. You can read it here at

Maybe you’re taking a course in Animal Assisted Interventions and you’re looking for your future therapy dog. Or you’re volunteering at a shelter full of dogs and it occurs to you that they could work in AAI. In the meantime, you know there are people in nursing homes who would love to have a visit from a friendly dog. A fantastic idea comes to mind – wouldn’t it be great to take a dog from a shelter for a few hours and visit an institution? It can only be a win-win situation, right?

What is the AAI with shelter dogs and how does it work? 

First, a background story: Some time ago, three women contacted our association. They were involved in a therapy dog project, it was going reasonably well, but they had run out of things to do in the sessions. Could we help them with some creative ideas to improve their project? We love helping beginners in AAI, so we agreed to meet.

We went to the meeting armed with a presentation highlighting a myriad of activities adaptable to any AAI session. The activities were tailored to a wide variety of projects and were based on a combination of the handler’s skills with the dog’s character and abilities. Supporting the activity plans was a list of specially created toys, objects, and tools to enrich the sessions. All designed to motivate clients and help the centre’s education or health professional achieve their therapeutic goals, be they cognitive, physical, or emotional.

The women explained that the dogs were not their own, but lived in a shelter. One day a week they would go to the shelter, take three dogs out and visit a nearby nursing home. The nursing home residents were happy to pet the dogs, brush them and throw them a ball. But the encounters were quickly becoming routine, and the women felt the need to liven up the sessions a bit. What could they do, given that the dogs had virtually no skills? Sometimes it was all they could do to keep the dogs calm during the visits.

From their point of view, it was a reasonable question. Disguising our alarm, we questioned them further. Before entering the nursing home, were the dogs bathed or, at the very least, well brushed? Were dirty collars replaced with clean ones? Were the dogs properly exercised before each session? And finally, had the women taken any courses on Animal Assisted Intervention?

The answer to all these questions was no. Seeing that the meeting was much more complex than we had imagined, we asked them to consider other points before we discussed creativity. This led to a lively discussion about hygiene practices, the need for protocols, and the importance of selecting the right dog for visits. We did not have time to delve into such topics as how to ensure the health and well-being of all project participants, so we recommended that the women get some AAI training. 

Shelter dogs and AAI – What does it mean?

The participation of shelter dogs in AAI means that dogs living in shelters or in temporary foster care are actively involved in therapeutic work. On a day-to-day basis the dogs do not have a single person looking out for their interests but are cared for by a network of people.

The dogs meet people living, studying and/or receiving treatment in various institutions, such as hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers or correctional institutions. As in any AAI project, the encounters are designed to help reach educational, therapeutic, or recreational objectives. Sessions can be as basic as gentle visits that require little action on the part of the dog, activities as simple as brushing, stroking, or playing. Because the dog comes from a shelter, emphasis is often placed on the dog’s unique situation. Many clients are aware that they are helping improve the likelihood that the dog will be adopted.

Within the scope of AAI projects in general, it is an attractive working model, as it fulfills two objectives: the therapeutic or entertainment needs of the client group are enriched. And the dogs get the chance to interact positively with the world at large.

Therefore, the women who consulted us were correct in their original premises:

– Shelter dogs often lead sedentary and boring lives inside. By participating in an AAI project, they are given the opportunity for physical and social contact from people they would otherwise never meet.

– The clients – and especially those living in isolation – can interact with a warm, caring, non-judgmental living being whose principal goal is to be with people. 

– Dogs receive positive features in their profiles: “This dog engages in a positive way with a vulnerable population. “This makes it more attractive in the eyes of prospective adopters.

– The people involved in the project often know the dogs’ history. This helps to create a feeling of empathy towards them. Often, the dogs’ situation mirrors their own and people in confinement, for example, can emotionally identify with the dog’s circumstances.

Shelter Dogs and AAI – Project Types

Shelter dogs participating in AAI projects generally participate within two working models:

– Dogs leave the shelter and visit institutions. A suitable dog may participate on a regular basis – weekly visits, for example. Or there may be a rotation of dogs to give many of them the opportunity to socialise outside the shelter. Dogs are often required to participate in types of activities similar to a dog living with their handler. However, shelter dogs may not have had the opportunity to be trained for their role within AAI activities.

– People come to the shelter in small groups, and sessions take place in or near the shelter. Most often, a dog works with only one participant in the group. Many times, the emotional and physical needs of the dogs are highlighted within the project. Activities may focus on physical contact, play, walks or training, with the goal of improving the dogs’ adoption prospects in mind. There may be a marked structure, like group classes in a dog training school, which offers the human participant the opportunity to learn how to train a dog.

Shelter dogs in AAI projects: are the key elements in place?

When it comes to working with shelter dogs in AAI environments, there are some key ingredients that inevitably fall short of the ideal. This means that handlers must equip the project with special protocols to compensate for the shortcomings: 

The human-dog bond

Unlike a dog that lives as a family member within its handler’s home, a shelter dog does not have a person to serve as a key reference figure. He can and often does form an attachment to the person working with him in the AAI environment, but the quality of this attachment – relative to the demands of their shared task – can come into question. Can the dog feel comfortable working in an intense environment with a person with whom he may or may not have a positive bond?

The question of hygiene

This point is of great importance in any AAI project. All AAI dogs must be healthy, clean, free of parasites and in excellent shape on the day of the session. It is much easier to answer this need when the dog lives with the handler. It is not so easy when the dog is one of many within a shelter, and when its welfare depends on the management structure of the shelter.

In the case of shelter dogs that visit institutions and centres, AAI volunteers may not have time to carefully groom the dog before entering the facility. In addition, the dog may not be feeling very well that day, and without careful observation this may go unnoticed.

Is the dog having a good time?

A competent handler knows when your dog is getting tired of the session. She knows which people she works well with, and which groups are best avoided. (This is why many AAI handlers have more than one working dog). But in the case of shelters, unless they have had the opportunity to get to know the dogs well, they can’t be sure if the dog will thrive and shine in each situation, until they try it.

And, likewise, an AAI handler knows when her dog is feeling stressed. She knows what to do to prevent or alleviate any psychological influence the dog may feel and knows how long it will take her dog to recover from each session. However, shelter dogs are often taken back to the shelter, put in their cage, and left to fend for themselves. Without any decompression activity, they must recuperate on their own.

Shelter Dogs and AAI – Best Practices

– It is possible to create, develop and successfully implement AAI projects with shelter dogs. Selection of the dog(s) is important and involves extensive character testing and experience on the part of the handlers. Even if you do not live with the dog, you should know your working partner well.

– All dogs that come to the institutions must work under strict hygiene and health protocols, whether they come from shelters or live with people full time. There is no excuse for an unclean and possibly unhealthy dog to meet with people who may be in a compromised state of health.

– In the case of people who visit shelters to participate in IAA activities, they are assumed to be in good health and robust enough to spend time in a shelter environment. If not, they should refrain. And even then, the dogs should be clean, free of parasites and well balanced psychologically.

– Whether the dog is visiting an institution or receiving visits by people from an institution, the dog should be well balanced and relatively stress-free. It should have no history of aggression directed at people and should be well socialised. It should enjoy participation and not have to endure excessive stress.

And finally….

What became of the three women who came for a consultation?

They left with a new understanding of the complexities of AAI. We were able to provide new creative ideas that resulted in an enriched project. And one of the women signed up for our AAI course, which led her to break new ground in other AAI settings and with a wide range of individuals.

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