Animal Assisted Psychotherapy

Course excerpt from Therapy Tidbits – January/February 2017

Animal Assisted PsychotherapyAnimal Assisted Psychotherapy (AAP) is a unique and expanding field in which mental health professionals incorporate trained therapy animals into counseling sessions.

AAP differs from the more commonly understood Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) in which volunteer handlers and animals visit facilities such as schools, hospitals, or nursing homes. AAT programs are powerful for both the participants and the volunteers, but AAP’s focus on mental health, the depth and complexities of the therapy and the training of clinicians makes it unique.

During AAP sessions, clinicians work with their own trained therapy animal (often a dog) or an animal that resides at a counseling center. For instance, at our facility, Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado (AATPC), clinicians can choose to work with our resident horses, goats, cats, rabbits and rats. Counselors decide which animal according to needs of the client, the presenting issues and treatment goals, safety considerations, the animal’s work/rest balance and a variety of other issues that may vary day-to-day. Sessions take place both inside and outside and are generally a mix of free, nondirective interactions and more directive, structured interventions.

Professionals from a variety of treatment backgrounds can practice AAP, as it is a specialty that supplements and enhances clinical work and can be adapted into most styles of counseling. Animal assisted psychotherapists are responsible for managing both the client and the animal, which means they monitor the safety, welfare, behavioral changes and emotional well-being of both parties, while also understanding how to combine the strengths, challenges, needs and desires of all involved.

There are numerous reasons why animals are included in sessions and why AAP might be a good fit for a client. Animals can reduce physiological and psychological stress signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure, which allows clients to feel calmer and less anxious during sessions and thus more able to engage in therapy. Animals are empathic, nonjudgmental, affectionate and give unconditional positive regard, which enables the client to feel welcome, accepted and comforted in sessions. This atmosphere of emotional safety facilitates the development of a therapeutic bond, encourages rapport and can lead to increased disclosure and openness. Having animals in session is also motivating for clients to both engage in and return to therapy. Sessions with an animal can also be fun and energizing, which may be a welcome change for clients who have previously had unsuccessful therapeutic experiences.

Animal assisted psychotherapy is unique in its ability to combine thinking, feeling and behaving within one intervention. Working with the animals is a hands-on, experiential exercise and clients no longer just talk about their issues but are engaged in activities that elicit honest behaviors and feelings, which can then be processed in the moment.

Animal assisted interventions also present new challenges and opportunities that enable clients to see themselves in a different, positive light. Interventions such as walking a horse, brushing a goat or teaching a dog a new trick encourage problem solving, assertiveness, patience, communication and awareness and regulation of emotions and behaviors. Clients are presented with opportunities that gently push them out of their comfort zone and, in return, they gain new skills, self-awareness, a sense of mastery and accomplishment and are able to work on their therapeutic goals in a whole new way. Animal assisted interventions may include simply cuddling or petting an animal; teaching an animal a new trick or skill; haltering and walking a dog, horse, cat, goat or even a rat; creating and executing an obstacle course with an animal; doing artwork of or with an animal; creating play scenarios with an animal; watching animals interact while discussing body language and non-verbal communication and many other creative activities.

Throughout these interventions, an animal’s story is generally shared with the client, which allows the client to feel a sense of connection to the animal. Because our animals are either rescues and/or have a history of trauma, our clients often connect with a certain animal with which they feel a bond due to similarities or parallels in life events. Clients may then project onto the animal their own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, struggles or problems, which helps clinicians better understand their issues, Furthermore, clients can then help to “solve” the animal’s struggles and thereby uncover solutions to their own issues as well.

AAP is best understood by example. Following are two brief case studies to demonstrate the power of this work. All names and identifying information have been changed.

Josie was a 14 year-old girl whose father and sister died in a car accident a year previously. Josie’s behavior was becoming increasingly challenging, her grades had fallen drastically and she had begun skipping school. Josie’s mother had tried two other therapists but Josie had refused to talk. Josie agreed to come to AATPC because we had animals, and she immediately bonded with our horse, Cody, who had been rehomed to us after his companion horse died.

We spent most sessions in the arena with Cody, talking about his story and grooming or walking him. Josie also spent time each session laying her head on his huge belly and listening to him breathe. Each session, she talked about how Cody must miss not only his companion but the life they’d had together and the things they did. She noted that even though he was safe with us, his life was forever changed.

This led to discussions about how Josie not only desperately missed her father and sister but also mourned the loss of her “normal” family and the care-free and joyful life they’d had. She processed how she struggled to discuss these issues with her mother because she did not want to burden her any more. After several months, Josie invited her mother to a session with Cody and as they groomed Cody, Josie shared his story with her mom. They both became emotional and were able to share their own grief, which they had struggled to do honestly in the past.

Karl was a 60 year-old veteran who struggled with anxiety, alcohol addiction and maintaining social connections. He immediately bonded with our therapy dog, Rupert, and was friendly, engaging and playful with him. As he played with Rupert, Karl’s anxiety lessened and he was able to share about his life story, his addiction and his loneliness. He was able to maintain a conversation with his therapist, which he had not been able to do with his previous counselors.

During sessions when he played with Rupert, Karl also practiced turntaking, reciprocal engagement and eye contact. Karl was able to connect these skills to those needed in conversation with people and practiced with his therapist. Moreover, Rupert’s “addiction” to playing fetch, even to his own physical detriment, also allowed Karl to discuss his dependence on alcohol and the consequences it had on his life. What looked like simply playing ball with a dog was actually a powerful intervention that allowed Karl not only to understand and process his own issues, but to recognize and practice new skills and ways of behaving.

Animal assisted psychotherapy is a unique, powerful and impactful way to engage clients in sessions and create powerful and lasting change. With the proper training and supervision, AAP is an accessible and beneficial modality for many clinicians looking to reach clients in a creative, fun and meaningful way.

About the Author:

Ellen Winston, MA, LPC, has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and a certificate in Animals and Human Health from the University of Denver. She is a licensed professional counselor in Colorado and a national certified counselor. She co-founded Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado (AATPC) in 2010. Her email address is: [email protected]. The program’s website is:

Therapy TidbitsTherapy Tidbits – January/February 2017 is a 1-hour online continuing education (CE) course comprised of select articles from The National Psychologist, a private, independent bi-monthly newspaper intended to keep mental health professionals informed about practice issues.

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