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Animal Assisted Therapies: Incorporating Animals into the Practice of Traditional Psychotherapy

We’ve typically all heard of a therapy dog or a service animal, but what about incorporating our furry friends into the therapeutic relationship? What are the benefits to having an animal in the therapy room? Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic modality that incorporates animals into the treatment plan and utilizes them in therapeutic interventions. AAT is used to enhance and complement the benefits of traditional talk therapy (Psychology Today, 2018). Animals used in AAT are often looked at as a co-therapist within the session. Professionals often advocate for using animals in psychotherapy treatment because animals can bring forth a vivid array of nurturing emotions, and many people seeking help respond positively to the idea of caring for another being (Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy, 2017).

Animal assisted therapy can be a useful modality for adults, children and group therapies. Animals can provide a sense of calm, comfort, or safety and divert attention away from a stressful situation and toward one that provides enjoyment. Advocates of AAT say that developing a bond with an animal can help people develop a better sense of self-worth and trust, stabilize their emotions, and improve their communication, self-regulation, and socialization skills (Psychology Today, 2018). AAT can also provide numerous physiological benefits including decreased stress levels, decreased heart rate, and lower blood pressure (Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy, 2017).

Additionally, AAT has shown to be a useful modality of therapy for children experiencing behavioral issues, people suffering from anxiety, depression or medical issues, in addition to individuals on the autism spectrum. People battling disorders like schizophrenia and addiction have also been shown to benefit from AAT (Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy, 2017).


Another avenue of therapy incorporating the use of animals is Animal Assisted Play Therapy (AAPT). According to the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy, AAPT has been defined as “the integrated involvement of animals in the context of play therapy, in which appropriately-trained therapists and animals engage with child, family, and adult clients primarily in play interventions aimed at improving the client’s psychosocial health, while simultaneously ensuring the animal’s well-being and voluntary engagement in the process. Play and playfulness are essential ingredients of the interactions and the relationship” (VanFleet, 2013).

The feature that most distinguishes AAPT from other forms of animal assisted therapy, according to its founder, Risë VanFleet, is the systematic inclusion and encouragement of play and playfulness as the primary means of expressing feelings, developing relationships, and resolving psychosocial problems (VanFleet, 2008; VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2010, 2014).

Therapists who wish to obtain this certification must go through a series of intense trainings and online courses. Once these have been completed, the therapist must demonstrate competence and extensive knowledge through supervision and case consultation. 50 hours of actual AAPT practice is also required (VanFleet, 2011).


Practitioners with this credential and expertise are difficult to find in the Midwest, as the treatment modality is fairly recent to North America. For additional information, please visit http://risevanfleet.com/international/.





Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy. (2017, December 12). Retrieved May 10, 2018, from



Animal-Assisted Therapy. (n.d). Retrieved May 15, 2018, from



VanFleet, R. (2011). About AAPT. Retrieved May 21, 2018, from http://risevanfleet.com/international/






About the Writer: Katie Zalesky MA, TLMFT


As a marriage and family therapist, Katie is passionate about helping clients achieve emotional and physical wellness. Katie has several years of experience working with families and children; this has included community work, in-home work and clinical practice. She applies a solution focused, strength-based family systems model individualized to each unique client. Katie hopes to become certified in AAPT someday soon.

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