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ISU professor on mission to help people with therapy animals

Leslie Stewart with her bunny, Saki. | Courtesy Leslie Stewart
POCATELLO — When Leslie Stewart realized people could benefit from working with therapy animals, she knew she had to provide that service to others.
As an associate professor of counseling at Idaho State University, Stewart has about 20 years of experience working with animals in some type of professional capacity. When she lived in Georgia, she gave adaptive horse riding lessons to disabled students. During the horseback rides, she integrated things that were consistent with what the person was working on with their teacher or psychologist.
“In doing that, I realized that a lot of the families of my students were wanting to talk to me about some of the emotional challenges that they were facing as families who had a child who was differently-abled,” Stewart said. “I didn’t have any training in that.”
That prompted her to get her master’s degree in counseling with every intention to return to her job of providing adaptive riding lessons. But during school, she recognized people weren’t taking her seriously about her desire to learn how to blend human and animal therapy work into one.
“There wasn’t a lot of strong research about it. Providers weren’t specially trained in any reliable, consistent way, and the field wasn’t viewing it as something that was a strong intervention,” Stewart said.
Stewart said she felt the only way to change that was to further her education with a Ph.D. Now she uses her knowledge as a mental health provider to teach ISU students about how to work with therapy animals.

Star is an English Shepherd dog that Stewart works with as a therapy animal. | Courtesy Leslie Stewart

According to ​American Veterinary Medical Association, a therapy animal is a type of animal-assisted intervention that involves a client’s goal and an animal that meets specific criteria helping with the treatment process.
“That’s sort of my main body of work … contributing to the research about animal-assisted interventions, but more specifically, I focus on what it takes to train the humans to do this well,” Stewart said.
She said individual horses, dogs, cats, bunnies, llamas, alpacas, parrots, pot-bellied pigs, rats and guinea pigs are eligible to be evaluated to see if they’re suitable for a therapy animal role.

Saki. | Courtesy Leslie Stewart
Stewart said one can take two routes when it comes to working with therapy animals.
A person can team up with the animal as a volunteer. That means, for example, the volunteer can take animals to visit places such as hospitals, schools or attend reading programs. There’s no clinical goal as a volunteer — rather, the animals are there to boost morale.
The other option is to do what Stewart does and work with the animal as a professional partner. She said the human has to be appropriately licensed or credentialed in a health care human service field.
“Professionals take it another step farther by including whatever’s going on between the client and animal,” Stewart said. “They have to be able to tie it to the client’s therapeutic goal.”
She works with her rabbit named Saki and often brings her to ISU. At the college, students can earn a certificate in animal-assisted interventions by learning how to partner with an animal by learning its language to help their future clients.
“Idaho State has one of the only (programs) available in our local area,” Stewart said.

Star. | Courtesy Leslie Stewart
Therapy animals, with the help of their trainer interpreting what’s taking place, can teach clients in a unique way about consent and coercion, boundaries, expectations and relationships, Stewart said.
She said research shows that clients tend to perceive their relationship with their human provider as better when there’s an animal involved. She added that the No. 1 predictor of positive outcomes in counseling and psychotherapy is the client’s perception of their relationship with their provider.
“When (animals are) appropriately implemented, we have the potential to positively impact the top predictive factor of success in counseling and psychotherapy,” Stewart said.

Saki. | Courtesy Leslie Stewart

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