Since including therapy animals in my practice, I have seen so many clients experience profound growth and healing. This is why I’m passionate about supporting mental health professionals and educators to implement Animal Assisted Therapy in their own settings.
It is incredibly powerful to witness the confidence and connection that grows between my dogs and individual clients – some of whom have not felt connected in a really long time.
The specific benefits of animals in therapy depend on the individual client and their needs, and may include:
- Skill development – utilising therapy animals to build confidence or distress tolerance
- Demonstrating what it is like to engage in a relationship with another being that is equal, shared and respectful
- The opportunity to work through attachment issues and to communicate in a way they may not have been able to before.
So, let’s take a closer look at what Animal Assisted Therapy is, the therapeutic applications and benefits, and how as practitioners, we can apply AAT to support meaningful outcomes for our clients.
What is Animal Assisted Therapy?
AAT is an effective therapeutic modality, where trained therapy animal and handler teams draw on the therapeutic benefits of the human-animal bond, to assist clients to achieve meaningful and lasting change.
As with other therapeutic frameworks, AAT is goal-oriented, planned, structured, and evidence-based. The therapy can take many forms, depending on the client, the animal and the goals for treatment.
Importantly, to use AAT within your practice as a health or human services professional, both you and your animal will need to have completed a certification process.
“A therapy animal is only considered a therapy animal when used by a professional who is qualified to deliver Animal Assisted Therapy.”
AAT is used by a wide range of disciplines, including social workers, counsellors, psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, and doctors.
What are the therapeutic benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy?
It is commonly accepted that the inclusion of dogs in a therapy space plays a significant role in increasing client motivation to engage in therapy.
However, the benefits go far beyond motivation.
Numerous studies (listed in Sources) have found that when skilfully integrated into client sessions, AAT:
- Improves outcomes and promotes client engagement
- Enhances client experiences of trust and safety in sessions
- Builds rapport and relationship with the therapist more rapidly to enable a more efficient therapeutic alliance
- Initiates and strengthens the bond between the therapist and client, as well as becomes a tool to encourage positive therapeutic changes
- Keeps the client focused on the present moment to enable the exploration of long-standing issues that may be too painful to discuss without an animal present
- Provides an experience of unconditional support and acceptance that can be difficult for clients in a vulnerable state of mind to seek out from other human beings
- Provides emotional regulation opportunities through touch and relationship
- Provides model for appropriate language, discipline, and behavioural learning
- Provides model for learning to establish consistent boundaries and expectations and develops improved communication skills
- Provides immediate and non-judgemental feedback for pro-vs anti-social behaviours
- Provides relational interactions to support the assessment of attachment style & relational skills
- Provides experiential and process learning opportunities for interpersonal development, trauma recovery, developing understanding of self and others and improving assertiveness.
When looking at the evidence-based benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy, we see that the inclusion of therapy animals can support clients to:
- Increase their capacity to self-regulate
- Lower cortisol levels (stress hormone) and release oxytocin (happy hormone) – resulting in a reduced stress response
- Increase access to the emotional centre of the brain – supporting clients to process difficult emotions, experiences or behaviours that may previously have blocked them from engaging meaningfully in therapy.
AAT also offers opportunities for tactile stimulation, co-regulation and mirroring, as well as experiences of emotional bonding and new opportunities to engage in a healthy interpersonal relationship where care, trust and predictability are core elements.
AAT and the therapeutic alliance
Key to any therapeutic outcomes is the relationship that is created within the therapeutic alliance. When we include animals in our practice, we have double the impact – we have the relationship the client is experiencing with the therapist, and we have the relationship that the client is experiencing with the animal. With interpersonal trauma, sometimes there are barriers and our clients are hesitant to trust another human being. This is particularly relevant for a child who may have experienced neglect or abuse at the hands of a caregiver. Experiencing two safe, nurturing and respectful relationships helps the client feel safe. When the client is feeling safe (in fact, only when they are feeling safe), they are able to explore and process internal states and engage in therapy in a meaningful way.
Through integrating AAT into our work we can promote a grounded and regulated environment to assist client’s capacity to explore issues, emotions or behaviours which may have been too difficult to express previously. Regulating the nervous system through touch, connection and co-regulation lowers defence mechanisms and allows clients to work through problems within a safe and nurturing environment, rewiring the body’s felt experience associated with their trauma.
Animal Assisted Education
Similarly to Animal Assisted Therapy, studies have found that including suitably trained dogs in schools can provide benefits for student wellbeing, including:
Physiologically, the presence of a dog has been found to significantly lower behavioural, emotional and verbal distress in children when participating in a mindly stressful activity
- Lowered blood pressure and heart rate has been observed when a child reads aloud in the presence of a therapy dog
- Dogs contribute to student self-esteem by providing a ‘friend’ to bond with and love in the classroom setting
- Increased student attention, responsiveness and cooperation with an adult when a dog is present in the classroom.
You can learn more about the benefits of Animal Assisted Education and how to implement it in your educational setting through our self-paced, online course: Canine-Assisted Therapy in Practice.
What are the ethical considerations for implementing AAT?
Canine Assisted Therapy is about so much more than having a dog with good manners. As with any other therapeutic framework, AAT is about the outcome for the client. It’s essential to understand exactly how to work with both the animal and the client for a meaningful, healthy and ethical outcome for all.
Something I noticed when I was developing my own animal assisted therapy practice, was the tendency to skip over the conversation about ethical considerations. Many of the courses I looked into didn’t talk about what it was like for our animals to be working in the therapy space, or the expectations and responsibilities that exist when working with animals in practice.
As with any other form of therapy, there is a code of ethics and a set of practice standards that apply to anyone using Animal Assisted Therapy.
These exist to ensure that the therapeutic relationship is healthy and safe for everyone – the clients, the animals and the therapists. They include:
The welfare and wellbeing of any therapy animal is a top priority. This includes considering factors such as the animal’s health, temperament and suitability for therapy work. Animal handlers and therapists should ensure that the animals are provided with proper care, nutrition, exercise, rest and veterinary attention.
Consent and autonomy
Informed consent must be obtained from clients before incorporating animals into their therapy sessions. Clients should be fully aware of the involvement of a therapy animal in their treatment and have the autonomy to choose whether they are comfortable with it or not. This includes discussing any potential risks, allergies or fears relating to animals.
To deliver AAT, you must have the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to work with both animals and clients. This includes certification in animal assisted therapy, as well as understanding animal behaviour, body language, and appropriate handling techniques. Maintaining up to date knowledge and participating in ongoing professional development is seen as part of professional competence.
There are additional practice standards and ethical considerations, including Confidentiality and Privacy, Professional Boundaries, and Safety and Risk Management.
These ethical considerations are an essential part of maintaining a safe, effective and ethical practice of Animal Assisted Therapy, that prioritises the wellbeing of both clients and animals.
If you’re interested to learn more about setting up an ethically-based program for any client you’re working with, we cover this in-depth in ‘Canine Assisted Therapy in Practice’. It includes 31 self-paced lessons, with:
- Video content
- Additional readings
- Role plays and practice examples
- Access to course creator and experienced AAT Therapist, Anita Geary.
Find out more and register at: https://www.insighttherapiesvic.com.au/training-canine-assisted-therapy-in-practice/
About the Author
Anita Geary is an experienced Animal Assisted Therapist, based in Wodonga, Victoria. A committee member of Animal Therapies Limited (ATL), Anita has been recognised for her ongoing contribution to the development of the profession in Australia, and in 2023, she presented at the ATL conference (Brisbane), on the use of AAT when working with clients who have experienced interpersonal trauma.
In her role as Lead Therapist (ACA Registered Counsellor & AASW Accredited Social Worker) at Insight Therapies Counselling and Consultancy, Anita combines quality therapy with her fully trained and certified therapy dogs Bacardi and Kaluah, to engage her clients by delivering a therapeutic team of self, client and therapy dog.
Anita first began the process of AAT certification for both herself and her then 3-year-old Labrador Bacardi, in 2019, after noticing a natural longing for Bacardi to offer comfort to others. Anita recognised that these innate skills demonstrated by Bacardi, when combined with her experience of working successfully with adults and children who have experienced trauma, could offer children, young people and adults a meaningful and highly valuable therapeutic experience.
Since the beginning of Insight Therapies Counselling and Consultancy in early 2020, Bacardi’s daughter Kaluah has also completed her certification and now joins the team with her gentle nature and her willingness to share her calm to promote positive emotional experiences for those who work with her.
Insight Therapies Counselling and Consultancy is the first and only canine-assisted therapy practice in the Albury Wodonga area and have been featured for their support to those in need by Prime7 news, The Border Mail and ABC Goulburn radio. Read More.
Nancy Parish-Plass, Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy for Developmental Trauma Through the Lens of Interpersonal Neurobiology of Trauma: Creating Connection With Self and Others, Journal of Psychotherapy Integration 2021, Vol. 31, No. 3, 302–325
Zilcha-Mano et al. / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 571–580 Pets as safe havens and secure bases: The moderating role of pet attachment orientations
Canine-Assisted Therapies in Autism A Systematic Review of Published Studies Relevant to Recreational Therapy https://bctra.org/wp-content/uploads/tr_journals/7969-27839-1-PB.pdf
The Impact of Canine-Assisted Therapy and Activities on Children in an Educational Setting https://fisherpub.sjfc.edu/education_ETD_masters/312/
Canine co‐therapy: The potential of dogs to improve the acceptability of trauma‐focused therapies for children https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1111/ajpy.12199
Animal Assisted Therapy and Autism Intervention: A Synthesis of the Literature https://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/gs_rp/119/
Exploring Animal-Assisted Programs with Children in School and Therapeutic Contexts https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226411473_Exploring_Animal-Assisted_Programs_with_Children_in_School_and_Therapeutic_Contexts