Animal Assisted Play Therapy™ Is for All Professions – A blogpost by Cyndie Kieffer

Posted by on Jan 1, 2023


Dori and Norm, Cyndie Kieffer’s Approved AAPT Dogs

But you aren’t a play therapist…why are you signing up for that training?” That was a
question asked of me by several people; many of whom were people that I trusted and admired, so being posed such a question did make me stop and think for a beat. My answer at that time was “I want to know more. My dogs have worked by my side for many years and
here is someone combining play and dogs so I need to see what I can learn”. At the time that I signed up for the Level 1 Animal Assisted Play Therapy™ (AAPT) course I was working with
adults diagnosed with various intellectual or developmental disabilities; not the “typical” therapy setting. That did not negate a benefit for my clients interacting with my dogs and my providing services in a playful manner, however. Allow me to share my journey and
hopefully along the way inspire others in various professions to start your own exploration on how AAPT can be incorporated into the services you are providing.

I have had the privilege of providing AAPT to people of every age and life stage throughout my career, and I truly believe everyone can benefit from this therapy. The majority of my career involved the dog working by my side while I was nomadic with no permanent office setting.
This unique situation most certainly had pitfalls but also allowed for creativity and determining what was and is absolutely necessary. Insuring that my dogs needs were met
remained a primary consideration and at times a challenge. The knowledge gained in the necessary AAPT coursework as well as supervision helped me look through a variety of lenses to insure my dog’s and client’s needs were being met all while keeping a playful approach as we moved from one physical setting to another. 

Samantha giving a paw shake.

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

While I have volunteered in longterm care settings for decades I have also been able to
provide AAPT to residents in these settings over the past few years. While this might not
appear to be a population where play therapy is often utilized I would invite that be
reconsidered; we are never too old to play. Implementing AAPT interventions with adults often
will push a person a bit out of their comfort zone as play and even laughter are not always
present in daytoday life. Jack, one of my approved play therapy dogs, could often be found playing a game of “21” using his giant playing cards– you can imagine the laughter from an older gentleman when he would lose a few rounds to a Border Collie. This playful approach helped build rapport much more quickly, allowed for opportunities to reminisce and brought us to working on therapy goals in a manner that didn’t seem as intense.

My work as an advocate could also seem to be an unusual space to incorporate AAPT, yet it has allowed the clients I serve to have opportunities to try new ways of expressing themselves, build self-confidence and to provide care for another living being. Utilizing two leashes where I am holding one and my client holds the other gives an opportunity for exercising (for all of us involved), caregiving, self-regulation and improving self-esteem.

There are developmental differences in the groups I have worked with through the years yet playfulness remains steadfastly present as does the relationship that I have with my dogs. Providing AAPT as a social worker who travels to where the client is that day is not always
the easiest. I do mention that caveat to discourage others but as a reminder to be creative when
imagining how you might include your animal in your work. Some tricks I have picked up
through the years include bringing along extra water, planning out interventions ahead of time
but having backup material your animal might need, roll up bed/mat, treats (if you use them),
carrying custom notecards and stickers along, always having extra hand sanitizer as well as wet
wipes. The list goes on as you might imagine but having a large bag with the basics so you can
add the individualized items as needed makes what can be a daunting packing job much more seamless.

Jack and the giant hot dog

Other Professionals’ Input

I wanted to show the perspectives of others pertaining to this topic, so I interviewed three professionals: Tara Greenlee, LCSW, Amber Graham, COTA, and Sherri Powers, OT-R for their input. The interview questions and responses are below.

  1. What drew you to AAPT?
    a. “…I was sure that they could help in even more ways and wanted to learn about it. My approach tends to be playful and AAPT includes the animal aspect so it just seemed to fit.” (Tara Greenlee, personal conversation, 4 June 2022)
    b. Interest in learning more about AAT to add to OT practice but not really sure where to start.
    c. Learning about therapy animals during OTA classes and having an opportunity to collaborate on a community project integrating animal assisted therapy into the community including a local jail, psychiatric center for children and various community service projects.
  2. Did you have any doubts or worries when starting the AAPT course?
    a. Worries about current animals not being interested in AAPT and using the word play
    b. Worries about the “prep work prior to the course and feeling ‘behind the eight ball’ initially.” (Sherri Powers personal conversation, 13 June 2022)
    c. “I was worried that the course work was only for mental health practitioners and that the info wouldn’t relate to me in the field of occupational therapy.” (Amber Graham, personal conversation, 5 June 2022)
  3. How do you feel the course benefited you both personally and professionally?
    a. “There are many animal assisted therapy programs out there but I really appreciated the hands-on and supervision aspects of this one.” (Tara Greenlee, personal conversation, 4 June, 2022)
    b. “The workshop went very well for me though and I was so thankful that I was able to attend. I have used some of the knowledge I gained from the workshop in teaching the OT students I have in class.” (Sherri Powers, personal conversation, 13 June 2022)
    c. “Having this background has opened up so many opportunities and conversations. Not many people in my field do AAPT so it’s definitely something that sets me apart.” (Amber Graham, personal conversation, 5 June 2022)

Dori and Norm want to know how you are feeling.

“Life must be lived as play.” — Plato

Seeing Animal Assisted Play Therapy™ through the lenses of other professions demonstrates just how translatable the skills are in the everyday working world; additionally,
they can positively impact our relationships we have with our own animals. As we all continue to further our knowledge of how animals can be of benefit in our professions it is even more
important that we all learn how to ethically and safely include the animals in our practices, recognizing their sentience and agency at all times.

Play is important throughout the lifespan and dare I say even more so as we are busy
“adulting”. For many there is a thought or belief that playing is a guilty pleasure and a misuse of one’s time. Through learning from others, including those in other professions we can find ways to further help those we serve. When examining how AAPT can be incorporated into your
profession remember the many benefits from being playful and including nonhuman animals.
By combining a playful approach along with your properly selected and prepared animal, the tough tasks can become more manageable. In fact, it can be that those tasks can be anticipated with joy when assisted in this manner.

About the Author

Cyndie Kieffer, LCSW, CPP-AAPT, CAAPT-I is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who combined her passion for helping people with her love of dogs. Cyndie is a Certified Professional Practitioner of Animal Assisted Play Therapy™ through the International Institute of Animal Assisted Play
Therapy®. In 2022, she completed the competency-based credential, also through IIAAPT, of Certified AAPT Instructor. Cyndie also enjoys helping others share their animals’ unique talents through involvement with Pet Partners as an evaluator, instructor and also a handler.
She has authored numerous articles on the topic of animal assisted interventions as
well as a chapter in A Spectrum of Solutions for Clients with Autism,” and the book,
Jack the Brave”. Additionally, she has spoken at many conferences on the international,
national and state level on topics related to Animal Assisted Play Therapy, animal assisted interventions and burn out among human services professionals.


© 2023, Cyndie Kieffer with the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, All rights reserved. For more information on AAPT, take a look at the website: