8 Things You Didn’t Know About Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)
It’s more than just petting puppies.
1. Counselors often incorporate AAT into traditional therapies for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more.
AAT-trained counselors can harness the power of the human-animal bond to help people feel more comfortable in a session or to help serve as an outlet for clients practicing social or communication skills.
2. The unspoken connection you have with an animal can help you to heal.
In addition to seeing evidence of the increased bonding that a therapy animal brings to a session, many counselors have seen the need for language decrease during AAT. Clients may even choose to express themselves through physical interactions with the therapy animal. This option for safe and therapeutic physical interaction is one way a therapy animal may offer opportunities beyond the scope of human counselors.
3. Dogs are the most common therapy animal.
Dogs have an undeniable bond with humans. There’s a reason they are often deployed in the aftermath of natural or human-made disasters.
4. Horses come in second.
Horses naturally observe and respond to nonverbal cues. That’s why they’re great at reflecting clients’ emotional and behavioral states. For some people, horses make it easier to recognize dysfunctional patterns of behavior—which can lead to healthier relationships.
5. Guinea pigs, llamas, cats, and rabbits also play a role in AAT.
Because counselors work with therapy animals in a variety of ways, approved standards are critical. In 2016, the American Counseling Association created Animal Assisted Therapy Competencies for professional counselors, focused on the knowledge and skills necessary for effective AAT.
6. AAT animals are not the same as service animals or emotional support animals.
AAT animals are trained for the counseling environments and situations in which they work. They often live with the counselors who work them, which can strengthen their bond and help in communication during their counseling sessions.
A service animal is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Service animals are the only animals that must be permitted in businesses and other facilities that serve the public.
Emotional support animals play valuable roles, too, although they may not necessarily be trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability.
7. An AAT animal is an equal partner in a counseling session.
The counselor is the advocate for the AAT animal, ensuring that the animal is not over-stimulated during the session. AAT animals require regular breaks for access to water and to relieve themselves, as well as a quiet rest and retreat area. The counselor makes sure the animal gets these things—and anything else that would add comfort.
8. Animals have been assisting mental health professionals unofficially for decades.
Sigmund Freud included his Chow Chow, Jofi, in his counseling sessions in the 1930s. In addition to assessing the mood of patients, Jofi knew exactly when 50 minutes had passed and it was time to end a session.
In the 1960s, ATT pioneer Dr. Boris Levinson documented his experiences with his “co-therapist” Jingles, a dog that helped even seriously withdrawn young people make significant progress.
When implemented intentionally and correctly, AAT can be a useful tool for all types of counselors across a spectrum of settings—from young children in classrooms, to older adults in assisted-living situations, to veterans recovering from war-related trauma.
Stewart, L., Chang, C., Rice, R. (2013). Emergent theory and model of practice in animal-assisted therapy in counseling. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 8:4, 329-348, DOI: 10.1080/15401383.2013.844657.
Stewart, L., Chang, C., Jaynes, A. (2013). Creature comforts. Counseling Today, May 2013. Retrieved from: http://ct.counseling.org/2013/05/creature-comforts/.
Stewart, L., Chang, C., Kress, V.E. (2013). Animal assisted therapy in counseling. ACA: Practice Briefs. Retrieved from: http://counseling.org/knowledge-center/center-for-counseling-practice-policy-and-research.