Toward Greater Awareness of Welfare in Animal Assisted Interventions: The Animal Assisted Play Therapy™ Model

Written by Risë VanFleet, PhD

The broad field of animal-assisted interventions (AAI) has grown in popularity and publicity in the past decade. One hears more and more reports in the media about the value of animals involved in visitation programs to hospitals and schools, reading-to-animal programs shown to increase children’s reading scores, and a wide range of programs for military service members struggling with reintegration and post-traumatic stress disorder. These developments are separate from those in the assistance dog world. In general, AAI programs involve practitioners’ own companion animals brought into an environment in which they can offer psychosocial benefits to those experiencing physical or mental health difficulties.

This article looks at the needs of animals, very often dogs, cats, and horses, who are involved in animal-assisted therapy (AAT), in which practicing professionals in mental health, allied health, and education include animals to improve the outcomes of their work (Chandler, 2017; Fine, 2015; Parish-Plass, 2013; VanFleet, 2008). While AAT has been practiced for decades, awareness of the animals’ needs when involved in AAT has lagged behind the glowing popular reports of benefits to humans. While most AAT practitioners would likely affirm their desire to treat the animals they work with humanely, there seems to be divergence between these desires and actual practice. This lack of congruence between intentions and behaviors is likely the result of a lack of awareness. This article offers an overview of ways in which the animals’ points of view can be better represented in this work, and roles that animal professionals can play in assisting therapists to enhance the welfare of the animals they incorporate into their work.

It is all too common to see photographs and videos of therapy animals proudly displayed by practitioners in which the animals look disengaged, and sometimes even miserable. It seems that enthusiasm for the benefits animals bring to human clients can cloud practitioners’ ability to see clearly what the experience is like for the animals. It behooves all those involved in AAT to become more aware of how animals are reacting to the jobs being given to them. The animals, after all, are conscripts into such services.

Most major organizations that register animals or teams for AAI typically look at the animals’ ability to pass certain behavioral tests. If the animals pass all the tests, it is assumed that they are appropriate for the work. This approach does not adequately consider the animal’s point of view, however, especially in professional AAT, where the relationships during the process are more involved and intricate than in visitation programs. During the past 15 years, a different model has been developed by the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy™, which is committed to the welfare and voluntary involvement of animals in the AAT process. It is hoped that some features of this model might be considered in other programs as well. They are detailed in VanFleet and Faa-Thompson (2017). In essence, it requires much more in-depth knowledge about animals by the practitioners themselves. Because of this, collaborations between animal professionals and AAT professionals are strongly encouraged. Some key features of this model are briefly considered below.

Goodness-of-fit model

“Goodness of fit” is a concept from the child development literature that suggests that the better the fit between a child’s personality and his/her environment, the better the overall adjustment. When applied to AAT this suggests that the better the fit between an animal’s personality and interests and the job the animal is being asked to perform, the more likely the animal will thrive. Mismatches between individual animals and their work environments lead to poorer adaptation and potential welfare issues. This model requires that AAT practitioners, with the help of appropriate animal professionals, develop clear understanding of each animal’s personality and interests and involve the animal only in work that matches that. Mismatches are avoided completely. For example, an animal that shows even slight signs of anxiety around children would not be expected to participate in programs involving children.

In many ways, goodness-of-fit involves the well-informed selection of animals for the roles that are intended for them. It also requires flexibility, because animals selected for one purpose simply might not turn out to be suitable for that role. Much as job applicants are selected based on their match with job descriptions, animals are selected based on how well they are suited for the AAT roles expected of them. Round pegs are never pushed into square holes, and sometimes plans must be changed or abandoned. For example, my now-retired play therapy dog, Kirrie, showed me early on that she was not well-suited to nondirective play therapy, in which the therapist (and the dog) does not become involved directly in the child’s play unless the child asks. Kirrie always wanted to be completely involved with the children, and although I could ask her to stay on a mat until the child asked for her involvement, I could see that she was somewhat stressed doing that. It was hard for her to watch child activity without being part of it. On the other hand, she excelled at more directive forms of play therapy, where the therapist structures the situation a bit more, suggesting certain activities. Kirrie eagerly did whatever she was asked, and she loved training activities, games, and interactions in which she was an active participant. Sometimes she even “suggested” new ideas, and it was useful to the therapeutic process when child clients could decide to do it Kirrie’s way some of the time. Knowing that these were Kirrie’s natural inclinations, I rarely involved her in nondirective play therapy and frequently included her in more directive interventions for the 10 years of her career with me.

Socialization, training, and relationship development

Copyright Rise VanFleetBehavior consultants know the great importance of proper socialization of animals, and this applies to work they are asked to do every bit as much as it does to family life. Practitioners of AAT might be less well informed about the importance of socialization, and this is where partnerships between mental health, allied health, and educational professionals and animal behavior professionals can offer considerable benefit to the AAT process. Training for future roles is important, too, and it is important that it be positive in nature. This not only ensures that the animals enjoy and respond well to the training process, but it provides a model for clients who are exposed to the animal in sessions. The way that the professionals interact with their animals is on display as a model and a metaphor for their clients, so it is critical that it conveys mutual respect and positive interactions. A culmination of all this shows in the relationship the practitioner develops with the animal. Healthy relationships built on trust and respect are essential for any type of AAT work. While few would argue with this premise, what it means in terms of the details of actual interactions seems to have less agreement among various professionals involved. Are knotted pressure halters acceptable for horses? Bits? Is it okay for dogs to wear prong collars while working? What if an animal shows several different stress signals whenever going into the workplace? If the model of a mutually respectful relationship is used, it has implications for all of these questions. The more fully that practitioners can learn and embrace ongoing socialization, positive training, and healthy relationship development, the clearer these issues become. Here again are roles that animal behavior professionals can play.

For example, a 9-year-old boy had been deeply frightened by his mother’s boyfriend who had (illegal) fighting dogs. The man had threatened the boy with the dogs on numerous occasions. The boy was removed from the home and placed in foster care. He began to display some unkind and potentially threatening behaviors toward the foster family’s dog, but the roots of his behavior were his fear and the boyfriend’s past behaviors. In therapy, he learned how to have a kind, caring relationship with the therapy dog while engaging in behaviors to keep himself safe. His therapist had learned positive training and interaction methods so she could always demonstrate a respectful relationship with her dog while helping the boy develop the same. Had she used any type of coercive technique it would likely have undermined their progress. The boy did well in therapy and the foster parents reported that the unwanted behaviors toward their family dog stopped after just a handful of sessions.

What is the job description?

Not all AAT is the same. Very often the literature about AAT does not define specifically enough what is expected of the animal or what the animal does. In fact, it seems that many think of AAT as a uniform practice in which the animal is present and clients interact by petting or through a variety of gentle activities. This is not always the case. For example, in Animal-Assisted Play Therapy™ (AAPT), therapists help clients engage in a very wide range of action-oriented and playful activities ranging from spontaneous play to quite structured games and training activities (VanFleet, 2008; VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2010; VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2017; in press). Specific activities are designed for specific objectives, but the forms they can take are many, with different degrees of structure and animal involvement. When animal professionals work with AAT professionals, it is important to get details about the types of things the animal is expected to do in that particular setting. In many cases, animal professionals can provide useful ideas about how to accomplish certain goals while making it enjoyable for clients and animals alike.

The animal’s point of view

Because much professional AAT includes an ongoing relationship in a specialized environment between client and animal, it is vital that practitioners become fluent in their ability to understand animal communication signals. The better they are able to recognize and interpret the body language of their animals, the better they can see potentially stressful situations, intervene earlier, and ensure the well-being of client and animal alike. Rather than expecting their animals to accept intrusive human behaviors, practitioners who are informed about their animals’ physical and emotional reactions to situations are much more able to intervene appropriately. A premium is placed on understanding the ethology of the species with which they work, as well as knowing their own individual animals extremely well. This goes beyond a basic understanding of stress signals and requires the ability to read and understand the body language of their animals in real time, as it is happening. This is a high-level skill that not only helps with risk management, but assures that the animal’s point of view is represented in all decisions that the practitioner makes.

For example, a therapist was involving a group of three single-parent families in an equine AAPT program. During one session, the families were to build an obstacle course and then work together to get three horses to move through it without using a lead rope. They were allowed to touch the horses and to give them a maximum of three carrots. The rest of the problem solving was up to the families as the therapist watched. The therapist had been through AAPT training and was watching the horses at the same time as she watched the families’ dynamics. In the middle of the activity, she noticed that one of her horses was extending his neck and putting his ears back in an attempt to move another of the horses out of a certain space. She was able to interrupt the activity and ask the families to observe what was happening with the horses. She briefly discussed it with them and then suggested that the families incorporate what they had observed about the horses into their problem solving. They were able to make some adjustments to keep themselves aware of the horse-horse dynamics and to adjust the space in the obstacle course and their handling of the carrots to keep themselves safe while still solving the problem. The families were pleased that they could be creative while still considering the horses’ needs as they mastered the challenge.

Voluntary involvement of the animal

While many AAI programs have very good reasons for requiring that dogs remain on leash and that horses are on a lead rope, this approach does not work well for AAPT, in which many action-oriented interactions are involved, nor for some forms of occupational therapy or physical therapy, for example, where more freedom of movement is advantageous to the therapy. In these cases, it is desirable to work with animals off-leash or at-liberty, where the animals are free to move in and out of the space as they see fit.

To do this, practitioners once again require a substantially higher level of understanding of animal behavior and training than is traditional for AAI. Once certain animal-related competencies are achieved, working with animals that are free to move offers a number of benefits to the therapeutic process and to the animals themselves. If animals are free to make choices about their involvement, it helps the therapy become a more genuine experience. The dog is not being held in place next to the client; the dog is choosing to be with the client. The impact of this can be profound in mental health work. If the animal chooses to move away from the client, then the practitioner can work on the issues that might stir up for the clients, so the animal choices can be incorporated into the therapeutic process either way. When practitioners learn always to provide an escape route for the animals, the animals can make their own choices, and in so doing, their welfare is more likely to be preserved. These benefits to both the therapeutic process and to the animals come only at the price of greater training and competency on the part of practitioners in terms of their working knowledge of their animals. Once again, collaborative relationships between AAT and animal professionals can benefit all involved in the process.

When people ask animals to work in various forms of AAT, the needs of the animals are not always considered sufficiently. When practitioners are educated in greater depth so that they develop significant competencies in animal behavior and welfare, it is likely that the animals will experience the process more positively while practitioners can enhance the quality of human-animal interactions that they demonstrate to their clients and help their clients achieve for themselves.

The author will be presenting on this topic in some detail at this October’s APDT conferences in both the U.S. and Australia.


Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC is a child/family psychologist, certified dog behavior consultant, and founder of the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy™. She is the author of dozens of books and articles in the play therapy field, many of them winning awards. She has received international recognition for her training seminars, including a recent honor from the Pennsylvania Psychological Association, The Distinguished Contributions to the Science and Profession of Psychology Award. She conducts seminars on Animal Assisted Play Therapy™, working effectively with people for animal professionals, working with highly fearful and traumatized dogs, and subjects relating to ethics and welfare in animal assisted interventions. She offers several online courses related to animal behavior and therapy, helps therapists select and train dogs for mental health therapy, and consults about behavior problems. She can be reached through