The University of North Florida has launched a program that brings together mental health professionals and animals, and it’s the only program of its kind in the Southeast.

The Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling certificate program will be fully implemented in Fall 2019, but the pilot program began in January. 

“If you’ll pet a dog for 15 minutes, it will lower your stress hormones and increase your oxytocin,” Dr. Carlene Taylor, a licensed mental health counselor and visiting instructor at UNF, said of research supporting the benefits of interactions with animals.

“We know that relationships with animals and nature also lower depressive symptoms,” Taylor said. “And utilizing it in a therapeutic environment requires some expert skill. [This program] creates the place where people can become expert in the use of animals and use that treatment.”

The three-course certificate program is available for graduate students pursuing a career in counseling or a related field and practicing professionals who may not have had access to such programs during their own training. The first of the three courses is open to the public, but only mental health professionals will be able to progress to receive the certificate.

Participants will learn how animals can be incorporated into therapy for everything from PTSD to ADD.

“Let [the animals] do what they do and engage so that they bring something out in the client that we, as therapists alone, cannot do,” Taylor said. 

Taylor recalled the impact her therapy dog, Eli, had on one of her clients who was going through a divorce. Taylor said the woman would sob through every session, until one day Eli made all the difference.

“At some point she put the tissue down in her lap and he snatched the tissue out of her hand and he ran underneath my desk,” Taylor said. “And, of course, I got onto him, and she busted out laughing. Her meaning for that event was, you know Eli, you’re right. It’s time for me to stop crying.”

Justine Lowry is participating in the program’s pilot. Lowry is currently getting her master’s degree in mental health counseling at JU but taking the certification program through UNF. During an assignment at JU, she was told to visualize her dream career.

“I drew a picture of an office with a table outside and dogs,” Lowry said.

After seeing the picture, Lowry’s professor connected her with Dr. Taylor. Lowry hoped that after getting her own certification, she can get her dog, Fynn, certified as a therapy dog so the two can someday work together.

“I just want [my clients] to be as comfortable as possible, and I’m the most comfortable I could ever be when there’s a dog next to me,” Lowry said. “They’re changing your life whether you know it or not.”