Animal Assisted Therapy

What is AAT?

Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy (AAP) or Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a modality of therapy and counseling wherein a qualified and trained mental health professional incorporates one or more animals, into the therapeutic process, with specific, planned goals in mind; the animal(s) are an essential part of the treatment, and the therapist is practicing within the scope of his/her specialty or field.

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Pet Partners (previously Delta Society) formally defines AAT as “a structured, a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is delivered and/or directed by a professional health or human service provider who demonstrates skill and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions.”

There are other terms used in conjunction with, and often confused with Animal-Assisted Therapy. Pet Partners defines them as below.

Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA) provide opportunities for motivational, educational, therapeutic and/or recreational benefits to enhance quality of life. AAA are delivered in a variety of environments by a specially trained professional, paraprofessional, and/or volunteer in association with animals that meet specific criteria. Detailed note taking and developing specific goals are not required in AAA, and they often constitute simple visits where the animal meets, greets, and spends some time with the person.

Animal-assisted education (AAE) is a goal oriented, planned and structured intervention directed by a general education or special education professional. The focus of the activities is on academic goals, prosocial skills and cognitive functioning with student progress being both measured and documented.

Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) are goal oriented and structured interventions that intentionally incorporate animals in health, education and human service for therapeutic gains and improved health and wellness. AAT, AAA, and AAE all fall under the umbrella of AAI.

What does AAT involve?

Animal-Assisted Therapy looks and works almost like any other therapy session, with the exception of the animal component. That is to say, AAT is first and foremost psychotherapy, of any style (client-centered, play-based, psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, or even eclectic), depending on the inclination or training of the therapist, applied in concurrence with the benefits and advantages the presence and involvement of an animal brings to the process.

AAT involves the therapist and the therapy animal, often referred to as a co-therapist or therapy partner, working as a team to help the client meet their need-based, specific goals. This is done through different means and methods, depending on what instruments or modality the therapist utilizes. For example two different therapists could be trying to achieve the same goal; one through animal-assisted play therapy, the other through animal-assisted client-centered therapy, or even through cognitive-behavioral techniques.

The therapy animal is chosen based on predetermined criteria that help decide the suitability of the animal for therapy. Some criteria, among others, include a basic obedience training (like sit, down, stay etc.), having a welcoming and sociable temperament, enjoying human interaction, and being at least a year old. The therapy animal usually belongs to the therapist themselves, which helps lay the foundation for the duo’s working partnership.

The therapist-therapy animal bond is key in the therapeutic process, for multiple reasons. Having a thorough knowledge of one’s therapy animal, her personality traits, stressors, and individual quirks helps the therapist keep the environment safe & comfortable for both the client, and the animal, during session. It enables the therapist to pre-empt any negative interactions between the client and the animal, and facilitate a positive connection and experience between the two.

Aside from physical and emotional safety of all involved, a deep understanding of one’s therapy animal aids the therapist in gleaning additional therapeutic ‘raw material’ to work with; this refers to any responses or behaviors of the animal that may indicate any emotion, or concern that the client is experiencing.

Therapy animals can be a dynamic and animated medium for the client, through which they are able to get in touch with their own inner world, express the contents of the same, to themselves, and to the therapist, without feeling judged or compelled to do so. The animal can serve as a sensory medium (sound, touch, sight, movement), as well.

For the psychodynamic animal-assisted therapist, the animal can perform the function of an entity to project upon. Clients, especially children, often tend to project their thoughts, emotions, and cognitions onto the animal, offering the therapist a perspective of what their internal state of mind may look like. This helps provide an opportunity to begin a dialogue about the same, and to examine, explore, and process any past traumas, lingering emotions or fears and anxieties the client has.

From an attachment theory standpoint, the animal can also play the role of a transitional object, for clients; an object (or in this case a relationship) that provides the client comfort, and helps ease the stress of normal development and separation from the primary caregiver.

Robert Weiss posits, in his ‘social provisions theory’ (1974), that animals can also fulfil humans’ needs for love, affection, and belongingness (analogous to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in some manner), and in that way, enhance and uplift one’s psychological wellbeing.

How does AAT help?

AAT has numerous benefits, ranging from physical and physiological, to psychological and social. Animals often have a positive, motivating effect, and this has been harnessed before to help patients in physical exercise & rehabilitation, movement therapy and physiotherapy. It has also shown some amount of success in the case of persons with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and other conditions involving lessened motor skills and control. It helps to improve their balance and mobility.

Studies have even shown that the simple act of petting/touching/handling a dog, can lower one’s blood pressure and decrease a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease. It also reduces stress and anxiety and can help manage behaviors that stem from the same.

Meaningful relationships with animals can moderate or diminish feelings of isolation, and improve one’s self-esteem, self-efficacy and confidence. Moreover, clients’ attention-span, and concentration skills also increase.

Perhaps one of the most profoundly felt effects of AAT, however, is that interacting and working with an animal can help foster empathy within a client, and improves their socializing abilities and reinforces appropriate social behavior, especially since animals can provide a sort of “instant feedback” with their responses, in a non-judgmental, non-punitive manner.

For example, a dog that has been subject to rough handling by a child (hitting him hard, pulling his tail or scratching his face) will slink away from the child, and avoid further aversive interactions. On the other hand, a dog that is treated with kindness and love, and who’s boundaries are respected, will want to keep interacting with the child, and probably return the same affection he received. This helps the child understand what is acceptable and appropriate through an immediate cause-and-effect method.

Who benefits from AAT?

Animal-Assisted Therapy can be employed to help individuals of all ages, with a range of different issues. AAT is not necessarily limited only to individuals, but also to groups, couples, and families.

AAT is often applied in settings where children are involved. This is because animals have a way of lowering children’s defenses (usually against adults), and gaining their trust with their unquestioning acceptance of the child, and unconditional affection for them. This helps children feel safe enough to delve into their problems and work through them, while feeling supported and loved. Animals tend to also naturally be spontaneous, energetic, and sometimes creative, making them great agents to facilitate play, which is the child’s innate means of processing any event/trauma/unresolved emotion they are experiencing.

AAT has been extensively used with individuals on the Autism Spectrum. Animals have helped persons on the spectrum to improve their social skills (e.g. eye contact, verbal communication), their empathetic abilities, to learn and reinforce appropriate, acceptable behaviors through structured and organized agenda, and even helped soothe clients with sensory issues, especially those with high tactile sensitivity.

AAT is also beneficial to individuals dealing with depression, anxiety, cancer, substance addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), behavioral concerns, or even emotional disorders.

There is a small fraction of the general population that may not be suitable for AAT, and these include people who are severely phobic of animals, gravely allergic to their fur or hair, and/or have a history of abuse or violence towards animals.

AAT at Direct

At Direct, the therapist creates a treatment plan based on the needs of the client, in collaboration with the other expert therapists working with the client. This ensures that common goals are worked on together, which guarantee consistency and reinforcement of positive outcomes for the client.

Based on the goals of the client, their level of functioning, and ability to interact safely with the animals, the therapist determines which animal(s) will be best suited to help the client achieve his objectives for therapy. Goals are re-assessed regularly, and added or edited, as needed.