Animal Assisted Intervention: Q&A with Sharlet Jensen

I interviewed Sharlet Jensen of Speech Dogs, who is a speech-language pathologist using animal assisted intervention (AAI) in her clinic. Sharlet offers insight below about incorporating dogs work settings.


Katie Abendroth

2/23/20245 min read

Animal Assisted Intervention is a Game Changer

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharlet Jensen of Speech Dogs, who is a speech-language pathologist using animal assisted intervention (AAI) in her clinic.

Sharlet has worked with 3 therapy dogs over the years, and offers insight below about incorporating dogs into therapy and work settings.

Sharlet has worked with clients on the autism spectrum, many of whom have sensory processing needs or would also identify as highly sensitive people (HSPs).

Her clients respond well to animals, and dogs in particular. Get more insight and understanding into her work experience with the Q&A below.

What is the difference between a service dog, therapy dog, and facility dog? 

S.J.: Therapy dogs and their handlers partner to improve the health of humans. They may be a volunteer team that partners with a health professional, or visit places such as nursing homes, schools, or hospital wards. 

Facility dogs partner with professionals for specific purposes related to client care, working full days but living at home with a trained staff member.  Facility dogs may be seen at group homes, schools, hospitals, rehab centers, and first-responder stations.

Service dogs provide specific tasks for an individual with a disability, whether physical, psychological, or developmental. They have rights to public access to accompany their person in public places. 

What is animal-assisted intervention (AAI)? 

S.J.: AAI are goal-oriented tasks overseen by a professional that address specific needs of an individual receiving therapy.  While most commonly seen in mental health, AAIs are also used in education, physical, occupational, and speech therapy.

I’m hoping to see more speech-language pathologists (SLPs) using therapy dogs to support a client’s overall regulation, learn new concepts, and motivate clients.

Are dogs the only animal you work with? 

S.J.: Yes, I have worked with three therapy dogs over the years and am currently training my fourth.

There are nine species recognized for therapy animal work: dogs, cats, equines, llamas/alpacas, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, pigs, and domestic rats. Each have specific behavior evaluations to determine their suitability for the job. 

What  type of insurance do you need for animal assisted intervention? 

S.J.: It is tricky to navigate insurance for therapy animals as not all policies have specific wording about working dogs.  My professional liability insurance covers working dogs with a Canine Good Citizen certification. 

I also explain potential risks to new patients and have caregivers sign a liability waiver. Separate insurance is available through AAAIP for some dogs. However, insurance provided by a therapy animal organization to cover volunteer situations does not carry over to professional settings.

How did you get started using animal assisted intervention in speech therapy? 

I was working with a child with challenging behaviors who loved animals.  His mom agreed to let me bring my dog Delta to work to see if it would motivate him. They bonded immediately. He began chatting enthusiastically, praising her, and responding to my questions. 

Unfortunately there wasn’t much information available about incorporating dogs and AAI into speech therapy, so I used research from other fields to develop safe activities to target communication goals. 

Delta has blossomed into her job supporting kids’ development, comes to work with me three days a week, and helps me share knowledge through social media, the Speech Dogs website, and an upcoming book.  

What are qualities to look for in a potential AAI dogs? 

S.J.: First, an affiliative nature, meaning that the animal has a drive to interact with humans.  Some dogs are more comfortable with specific populations, but if interacting with other people is stressful it would not be in their best interest to pursue therapy work.

Second, basic obedience is important for professional safety. Obedience can be trained, but a dog’s affiliative nature is largely part of their inherent temperament. For example, my dog Delta has always sought out attention from kids, but took time to become friendlier towards their caregivers.

Third, a strong bond with the handler is essential. When unexpected things that happen (e.g., kids yelling or a toy getting dropped suddenly), a therapy dog will need to  look to their handler for direction.

Fourth, it is the dog’s presence that has the biggest impact on getting clients working toward their goals, rather than specific tricks. Dogs with slow, calm movements can help regulate anxious kids, while active dogs may motivate kids who tend to be more passive. 

Finally, energy conservation is important.  Delta gets most fatigued when sessions are emotionally intense.  At those times I let her stay on a bed to recover before rejoining therapy. This means I have to be prepared with back-up activities, in case Delta is tired.


What certifications do you recommend for incorporating animals into therapy clinics? 

The Canine Good Citizen test is a great place to start if you aren’t sure if your dog is ready for therapy dog work, as it assesses a dog’s ability to stay safe and calm in new situations. It is overseen by the American Kennel Club but open to all breeds and mixes. 

The Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals (AAAIP) is now available to help support professionals who want to partner with an animal for AAI. 

I also found it vital to seek out advanced resources on dog psychology and body language, as well as finding a great trainer and animal-behaviorist to consult when challenges arise.

What should you say to your employer if you are interested in trying out animal assisted intervention? 

Find research supporting AAI in your field. AAAIP or the Handbook of Animal-Assisted Therapy: Foundations and Guidelines for Animal-Assisted Interventions (edited by Aubrey Fine) are good resources of research citations. 

Addressing common concerns up front, such as roles and responsibilities of other staff members, handling fears and allergies (among both clients and other staff), disease transmission risks, and who would handle financial responsibilities associated with the therapy animal, and where the animal would be able to rest throughout the day as needed, could help with buy in as well. 

Even if an employer says no initially, they may change their mind with additional evidence.   

What is the funniest thing that has happened using animals in your workplace? 

One of the kids I worked with was especially bonded to my dog Johnny Utah, who worked alongside me for three years.  This child had only a few spoken words when we started, but about a year into therapy his preschool teacher reported the little boy had commented she was old.  When asked why he would say such a thing, he told her “Johnny Utah told me to say it.” 

Not only was it a full sentence, it was also one of the first times he’d spoken about something that wasn’t immediately present.  His mom joked that speech therapy might be working a little too well!

What is the most heartwarming thing that has happened with a speech dog in your clinic? 

I had a three-year old client with autism.  He was interested in my dog Delta, but also afraid to approach her. So, I would kiss to Delta to get her to return to my side. 

Although my client had only a handful of words and was difficult to engage in activities, he started imitating my kissing noise to get Delta to look at him.  Within a couple sessions he was kissing and calling “doggie” to get a reaction from whichever dog I had with me that day.


So there you have it! Great information from the trailblazer, Sharlet Jansen, who is using dogs to provide animal assisted intervention as a speech-language pathologist. If you are interested in learning more about this special connection, check out her website or follow her on IG @speech_dogs.