Animal Assisted Play Therapy (AAPT) is a full integration of play therapy with animal-assisted therapy, primarily for mental health/psychotherapy and education purposes. It is valuable in helping children, adolescents, and adults, and can be provided for individuals, groups, and families.
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, & 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 & the relationship” (VanFleet, 2013). The feature that most distinguishes AAPT from other forms of animal assisted therapy (Chandler, 2012; Fine, 2010) 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).
The International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy Studies (IIAAPTS) was founded to provide cutting-edge training, certification, and continuing professional development opportunities for mental health and animal professionals interested in the integration of psychotherapy, play therapy, and animal assisted therapy, or in providing support services to therapists who wish to conduct AAPT. The practice of AAPT requires a complex set of skills for both therapists and the animals who assist them.
The IIAAPTS has bases in Pennsylvania, USA and in Northumberland, UK. This site provides information about training programs, online courses, certification, and other resources. It also provides information related to competence in AAPT and its ethical practice. Blogs, documents, and videos on this site relate to the many facets of AAPT.
Co-Founders of AAPT
AAPT was developed, at first separately as Canine Assisted Play Therapy® and Equine Assisted Play Therapy® by Dr. Risë VanFleet and Tracie Faa-Thompson, respectively. They began collaborating and then offering training workshops together in 2004. They have coauthored dozens of articles and chapters, and their widely acclaimed book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy, was released in 2017.
Risë Van Fleet
PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, CAEBC-I
Dr. Risë VanFleet is a co-founder and director of the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®. She is also the President of the Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc., in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, an organization specializing in the training and supervision of child, family, and play therapy professionals. She also provides therapy to families and runs the Playful Pooch Program. She is a Licensed Psychologist (PA), Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor, and Certified Dog Behavior Consultant with 45 years of clinical, supervisory, administrative, and teaching experience. Her specialties include AAPT, Filial Therapy, chronic medical illness in families, disaster mental health, complex trauma and attachment issues. She has trained and supervised thousands of clinicians internationally. She also provides behavior consultation with family dogs, and specializes in highly fearful, traumatized, unsocialized dogs.
Dr. VanFleet may be contacted at:
Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, CAEBC-I
International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®
PO Box 613, Boiling Springs, PA 17007
Risë is the author of a number of ground-breaking and award-winning books, and she has authored dozens of articles, chapters, and manuals. Books include (but not limited to) Animal Assisted Play Therapy, Filial Therapy: Strengthening Parent-Child Relationships Through Play, Child-Centered Play Therapy, The Human Half of Dog Training: Collaborating with Clients to Get Results, and more. Her materials have been translated into several languages. She is also featured in several video-based online courses and the American Psychological Association’s DVD, Filial Play Therapy. She is on the editorial board of two major journals, and is a past president and board chair of the Association for Play Therapy.
Dr. VanFleet has been the recipient of 16 national and international awards, including the PPA’s Distinguished Contributions to the Science and Profession of Psychology Award, several awards for her education and training programs such as APT’s Play Therapy Professional Education and Training Award, 5 awards (Maxwell Awards and Special Awards from the DWAA) for her writing, and 2 awards for her wildlife photography.
MA, AASW, PGdipNDPT, CAEBC-I
Tracie Faa-Thompson, BA, Social Work; MA, Crim; PG NDPT, Clin Hypno, Cert EAGALA, Certified Animal Ethology and Behavior Consultant-Instructor, and Certified Filial Therapist and Instructor is also a cofounder of AAPT. She is a specialist social worker in adoption working with traumatised children and their adoptive and foster families in the UK. She is a British Association of Play Therapists Qualified Play Therapist who uses a mix of individual play therapy, Filial Therapy, and group filial methods. Tracie is also a practice teacher of social work students and a trainer in Life Story Work and attachment theory. As a clinical hypnotherapist, Tracie incorporates Eye Movement Integration with Emotional Freedom Technique as an effective approach to trauma. She has conducted training programs for professionals on attachment and resilience, life story work, sibling contact in adoption, introductions of adoptive families and children, Filial Therapy, and AAPT.
Turn About Pegasus
Hailing from a Scottish/Romany Traveller family, Tracie has grown up with dogs and horses as integral to her native culture. Tracie is a member of the Classical Riding Club and the founder of Turn About Pegasus, an equine-assisted programme for at-risk youth and also for families with a variety of difficulties. She is EAGALA approved for both mental health and equine specialist roles. She is the founder, and for over 20 years, the Chairman of her local Riding for the Disabled Centre until its recent amalgamation with another purpose-built centre.
Tracie is coauthor of the internationally acclaimed book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy, and author and coauthor of dozens of chapters, articles, and training manuals. She regular conducts AAPT work with all ages as part of her Turn About Pegasus program and conducts training in AAPT throughout the world. Tracie has a lifetime of experience of living and working with dogs and horses and over 30 years of working with vulnerable children and families.
AAPT Philosophy and Guiding Principles
Whenever nonhuman animals* are asked to perform tasks under human direction, their welfare needs to be considered. Too many therapy animals are exposed to debilitating levels of emotional stress or exhaustion without any recognition by their owners (therapists/handlers), a state of affairs that disregards the animal’s welfare and presents a very poor model of caring to children. Similarly, when therapists bring dogs into the playroom or take children out to work with horses, they must think about additional factors that impact the client and the therapeutic process. To ensure the physical and emotional well-being of clients and animals as well as the therapy itself, the following principles have been developed (VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2010).
*Please note: For this section, the term “animals” will be used to refer to nonhuman animals.
To the greatest degree possible, AAPT ensures the equal and reciprocal respect of child/family clients and animals. The needs of humans and nonhuman animals are considered equally important.
AAPT activities must be physically and emotionally safe for all involved. The therapist places a limit upon, or stops immediately, any activity that is not safe. The therapist is responsible for maintaining the safety of all participants in the session.
AAPT sessions must be enjoyable and pleasant for the animal as well as the child or family client. Clients or therapy animals have the option of non-participation; i.e., they may opt out of any activities they wish. Tired or bored dogs can lie down. Children can choose to play without the dog. Client and animal decisions are respected within the boundaries of safety. The therapist facilitates the session to ensure its therapeutic value regardless of these choices.
In AAPT, the therapist accepts the client and the animal for who they are. The therapist accepts and works with clients’ needs, feelings, and processes without pushing them in a different direction or at a faster pace. Similarly, the therapist does not expect the animal to become something he or she is not. For example, AAPT dogs are not expected to become so docile or controlled that their individual personalities and interests are denied. While therapists need to assess and train their dogs for good behavior and ability to tolerate children and the many activities of the playroom, they do not overtrain them to relinquish their essential canine and individual natures. Some dogs are more suited to non-directive play therapy while others are better candidates for directive or family play therapy approaches, and therapists consider this and act accordingly. The same principle of acceptance also applies to other species involved in play therapy.
Therapists train their therapy animals using positive reward-, play-, and relationship-based methods. Aversive equipment or procedures, such as the use of whips; choke, prong, and shock collars; or the use of pressure or physical corrections of the animal, have no place in the training, the therapy sessions, or the lives of these animals. This principle serves the welfare of both animal and child.
The AAPT process focuses on relationship, not control. Just as the animals are taught to behave politely and respectfully with children, children learn to treat the animals with tolerance and respect. The therapist helps children learn to recognize and respond to the animal’s feelings while developing a healthy relationship with the animal. All interactions with the animal follow the same principles for the development of humane, empathic, healthy human relationships. The essential playful nature of interactions during AAPT permit this to happen readily.
AAPT is a process-oriented form of therapy. While sessions might focus on specific tasks or goals, such as teaching something new to the dog or horse or other animal, the process of getting there is considered of much greater importance than achieving any single outcome. The therapist knows how to facilitate and use the process to help children and families overcome their difficulties or develop new skills. Unexpected events during interactions are woven into the texture of the session so that client and animal needs are met.
AAPT is grounded in well-established theories and practices in terms of child development, clinical intervention, play therapy, family therapy, and humane animal treatment. Adherence to these foundations and the other AAPT principles is designed to ensure a positive, relationship-oriented, best-practices approach to each child/family client and each animal involved in the therapeutic process.
Principles © 2008, 2010, 2013, VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, Play Therapy Press. All rights reserved.
Animal Assisted Play Therapy Book
Winner of the 2018 Maxwell Award in the category of best book on the human-animal bond!
This book is the culmination of the authors’ combined 75 years of experience working with animals as a part of their therapeutic practice. Professional practitioners, as well as the paraprofessionals who work in tandem with them, will find this book of enormous value. While the focus is on mental health professionals, the approach and methods covered can easily be adapted for use by allied health professionals, such as physical, occupational, speech, and recreational therapists as well as those in the educational field such as teachers and school counselors. Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) adds the elements of playfulness, humor, and lightness to the therapeutic process, and can be helpful for clients of all ages. It focuses heavily on relationships: how the relationship between therapist and animal must be developed in positive, mutually respectful ways in which the animals have a voice and choice whenever possible. This in turn provides a model for clients to help them strengthen their own relationships, not only with therapy animals and their own companion animals, but within the human relationships in their families and communities. The authors demonstrate how the techniques can be readily applied for dogs, horses, cats, and other animals. Many illustrative case examples are included.