What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?


What is Animal-Assisted Therapy anyway? The beginning of 2019 seemed like the right time to offer you an overview of the theoretical orientations, definitions, and benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has its theoretical foundations in the Biophilia hypothesis and the experiential learning model. E.O.’s Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis states that, “humans possess a genetically based propensity to attend to, and be attracted by, other living organisms” (Fine, 2010). If you have ever experienced going for a hike or taking your dog for a walk and feeling emotionally lighter, calmer, or maybe more energetic after, this is Biophilia at work. Experiential learning is rooted in the belief that a participant’s experience in an activity is central to their learning and by reflecting and evaluating their experience they can prepare for future life experience (Foley, n.d.). These concepts are central to the definition of Animal-Assisted Therapy as: “A goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with special expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession. Key features include: Specified goals and objectives for each individual; and measured progress” (Delta Society, n.d.). Research (Fine, 2010), has shown many physical, emotional, and social benefits of AAT across the life span including:

  • Decreased anxiety and stress

  • Decreased depression and loneliness

  • Lowered blood pressure

  • Decreased heart rate

  • Increased oxytocin

So how does Animal-Assisted Therapy work? Through my nearly decade of experience in the field, I’ve come to recognize 5 main factors that make Animal-Assisted Therapy a unique and impactful therapeutic approach:

1.     Relationship based: Central to the AAT process is building a healthy therapeutic relationship based on trust and mutual connection. The animals provide a sense of trust and comfort to develop this relationship. For those who have experienced distrust from other humans, building a relationship with the animals first can feel safe. This is the first step in the therapeutic process of AAT.

2.     Experiential: AAT is experiential by nature. It’s a process of learning by doing. In AAT, we have the opportunity to explore personal patterns and receive real time feedback from the animals to strengthen our relationship. We also have the opportunity to learn important life skills and coping tools and practice with the therapy animal. This is the core work of the therapy.

3.     Present focused: Animals and nature lives in the present moment. The animals help us to develop skills to stay in the moment and learn tools for regulating symptoms such as anxiety. Although, we may discuss the past and future, learning to regulate our thoughts and feelings is a present focused practice.

4.     Non-judgmental: Animals are non-judgmental by nature, when we can feel so judged in our lives. They are also forgiving and will not hold a grudge. We hold a non-judgmental, curious space throughout the therapeutic process.

5.     Reflective: Animals primary form of communication with humans is energy and body language. Thus, they are masters at reflect back our internal states of being and providing us direct, non-judgmental feedback. They can teach us how to read social cues and improve social relationships based on body language. Within the therapeutic process, we also reflect on how to transfer these skills into our daily lives and human relationships.

If it feels like Animal-Assisted Therapy might be a good fit for you or someone you know and if you have more questions, please reach out to the Wish Fulfilling Tree.

Shanti Hill-Gauer