Animal Assisted Play Therapy®: What Is It and Why Is It Trademarked?

by | May 4, 2020 | Play therapy, Human-animal bond, Children, families, & animals, Psychotherapy

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Risë VanFleet & Tracie Faa-Thompson

Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) was the brainchild of Dr. Risë VanFleet (USA) and Tracie Faa-Thompson (UK). Its origins lie several decades ago in each of their unique and separate individual experiences, taking form as they discovered the parallels in their philosophies and practices with dogs and horses, and combining their ideas and experiences into a systematic whole that is applied with a variety of species and for people of all ages. The more formal integration took place in the early 2000’s.

Although Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) existed at that time, they were not as widely known or as accepted as they are today. From the start, AAPT was different in both its conception and its practice. We simply didn’t realize at first just how different. As we conducted workshops in North America and the UK during the early years, professionals who had attended other programs often remarked how different ours was. At first we were puzzled because even though we knew that we were plowing new ground with our way of integrating animal science, relationship approaches, family and play therapy, and animal welfare, we had spent all our time discussing and applying our philosophy–focusing on developing our way of working–rather than comparing ourselves to others.

This article briefly describes some of the key features of AAPT, offers what the authors, past participants, and researchers of AAPT have said makes it unique, and culminates with a brief explanation of why we trademarked the names that we created back in the beginning to describe our work.

Influences and Definition

The way in which we both (Tracie and Risë) started involving animals in our family therapy and play therapy work is covered in our award-winning and professionally acclaimed book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy (VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2017, Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press), as is the start of our partnership. We met under other circumstances, but as we discussed our lives and work with animals, we quickly discovered that our attitudes and philosophy about how animals should be treated were nearly identical. Now, almost 20 years later, we still find that our like-mindedness continues without wavering. We continue to talk about our ideas and impressions, clarify our thinking, and frequently learn from each other. We both have individual experiences, not only in conducting the work, but in courses or conferences we attend, people we meet, and the animals with whom we work. Many rich ideas are added to the mix from these as well.

We both acknowledge many influences in our work, and we are grateful for family, friends, fellow mental health as well as animal science professionals, our mentors in grad school and beyond, and the many participants and animals who have been part of our teaching, supervision, and growth. We have drawn from the brilliant theoretically integrative, evidence-based work of Drs. Bernard and Louise Guerney who created the Relationship Enhancement® approach to family therapy, including the unrivaled Filial Therapy for empowering parents and children through play. In many ways, this integrative approach provided a blueprint for our work in pulling from such diverse fields as psychotherapy, psychoeducational approaches to change, ethology, animal behavior and learning, animal and human play, play therapy, developmental and comparative psychologies, affective neuroscience, and the complete range of theories that have yielded different forms of mental health intervention, from attachment/developmental, interpersonal, psychodynamic, humanistic, behavioral, cognitive, Adlerian, gestalt, and many others. We have discussed some of these contributions in our above-mentioned book, and the book we are now writing on human-animal relationships will show how these have contributed to what AAPT is.


AAPT is defined as…

…the integrated involvement of animals in the context of play therapy, in which appropriately trained therapists and animals engage with clients primarily through systematic playful interventions, with the goal of improving clients’ developmental and psychosocial health, while simultaneously ensuring the animal’s well-being and voluntary engagement. Play and playfulness are essential ingredients of the interactions and the relationship. (revised from VanFleet, 2004, 2008, VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2017).

AAPT is suitable for children, adolescents, and adults, and can be conducted in individual, group, or family sessions. AAPT is used in both nondirective and directive modalities, across a continuum of levels of structure. The playfulness helps create the emotional safety required to do one’s challenging work. It can be used with a wide range of difficulties, and interventions are based upon (a) client goals, (b) therapist competencies, (c) animal personality, interests, and choices, and (d) the environmental factors surrounding the problem and the therapy.

It is guided by nine principles that are included in the book (respect, safety, enjoyment/choices, acceptance, training, relationship, empowerment, process, foundations), but it is in the actual application of these principles that the heart and soul of AAPT is revealed. Many people care about and believe they look out for animal welfare, but sometimes their behavior shows that there is a disconnect between what they believe and what they actually do. This is a topic for another conversation, but just a few other published materials of ours give a small flavor of our approach.

Control, Compassion, and Choices (part 1)
Control Compassion, and Choices (part 2)
Empathy in Animal Assisted Play Therapy®: Considering the Animal’s Point of View
What Therapy Animals Should Look Like!

Animals and Acceptance

The degree to which AAPT accepts animals as their own unique selves is very high. While boundaries are needed for safety purposes, AAPT uses a goodness-of-fit model coupled with methods that empower both clients and animals. The animals are trained using animal-friendly, positive-reinforcement based methods, but they are not over-trained. They have a choice and voice in the therapeutic process. If a horse chooses to walk away to graze, that is accepted. Therapy does not require that the horse participate the entire time. If a dog barks excitedly, rather than hushing the dog, the therapist helps the client learn how to read and understand the dog’s body language to determine why the dog is barking, and perhaps to behave in a way to ensure the dog’s comfort. Calm therapy animals are invited to do things they enjoy, and more active therapy animals have a wide range of action-oriented interventions if they so choose. Of course, all interventions are matched to client needs as well. The acceptance shown to the animals helps ensure their well-being in this process while demonstrating to clients the acceptance they can expect from the therapist in their therapy sessions.

This level of acceptance is possible only when the therapist has an in-depth knowledge of animal behavior, fluency in body language, and an understanding of both the ethology of the species as well as of the individual before them. It is in the depth of preparation required by AAPT  that others have recognized its dedication to animal welfare, and that the method has shown such incredible flexibility with many different problems, people, ages, and situations. High levels of competence yield both quality therapeutic process and quality outcomes.

During a workshop in Alaska, therapists build an intervention around the goats’ personalities , natural behaviors, and choices. This ensures that it is enjoyable for the goats while being meaningful for the client.


As suggested by its name, play figures prominently in AAPT. The playfulness can come from a variety of sources, including the animal, the client, the therapist, the items, and the situation. Playfulness is useful with all ages because it lightens the atmosphere and helps reduce anxiety. It creates a safe climate in which clients can do their difficult work. AAPT makes use of the many facets of play therapy, a field in its own right. It stretches far from playing with clients, and is a systematic approach that uses play and playfulness to enhance the therapeutic process. A skilled use of play in the context of therapy with animals adds many dimensions and possibilities to the therapy. An additional benefit of playfulness is that it often adds interest and enjoyment for the animals involved, too. This topic will be explored further in a future blog.

Relationship Focus

The other feature of AAPT is the manner in which relationships are approached. Most people who live with animals want to have a good relationship with them, but this can be defined in a variety of ways. Some might define it in terms of obedience. Others might define it in terms of their use of positive training methods. Still others might see it as a function of the amount of cuddling they do together. Many do not define it at all.

In the many reports and blogs and stories about animals in therapy, the preponderance emphasize the value to the humans. There are exceptions, but it is still quite rare to find a focus on the animals’ points of view. What is the therapeutic experience like for them? How do they perceive the training one does with them? What might they choose to do if human expectations (and in many programs, leashes, ropes, or fences) were not holding them in place? Would the animal choose to be with the therapist (and consequently, clients) if food were not involved? (Please note: We are not at all opposed to the use of food in training, but we favor using a variety of reinforcers, as well as relationship building that focuses on time and fun spent together without contingencies or expectations.)

Perhaps the main question is “How much reciprocity or mutuality is in the relationship?” This applies even when completely positive approaches are used in training. When therapists and their animals are together, do the animals get to make decisions about how that time is spent, and if so, what percentage of time? In AAPT we place great importance on the animal-therapist relationship and seek to have as much reciprocity as possible. When we place our undivided attention on the animal, we learn from them. We let them educate us rather than focusing on the other way around all the time. Training is important, but retaining the real spirit of the animal is more important. That is what we work with rather than a set of prescribed, trained behaviors. And it is this type of two-way relationship that typically allows the animals to greet new people and clients with enthusiasm and anticipation, features that we know are important for animal welfare.

When people appear, Tracie’s horses take notice and run to see them. They have learned that exciting and fun things happen with humans.


Relationships are best located on a two-way street. Always consider “What does my dog want?” (or any other species)
Animals with mutually beneficial relationships and healthy attachments with their families usually find other people of considerable interest, too.

In our 2017 book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, we define the type of relationships we strive for in our work. Because of our emphasis on allowing animals to be who they are, to revel in their spirited approach to life, and to build their unique features into the therapy process, once again there is much more required of the therapist in terms of awareness, split attention, proactive attention, fluent recognition of and context-dependent interpretation of body language, continuous use of peripheral vision, spontaneity, creativity, and attunement to the client as thoroughly as to the animals. There also must be flexibility and an ability to turn unexpected behaviors of humans or animals into important therapeutic understanding. There is much more, but this level of focus on our own relationships with our animals as well as the relationships we help our clients develop with our animals is profound. And ultimately, we want to ensure that therapists are able to step back far enough to see how any particular intervention or behavior affects not only the animal’s responses, but also the message it gives to clients. If we treat animals as objects rather than as sentient beings, we are saying something to our clients. We see many examples of this on therapy websites and videos where the animals clearly show stress signals while the therapist is laughing or commenting about how cute it is. We have to get beyond this if we want to have the most humane practice of AAPT (and other forms of AAI).

The best animal-assisted therapy for clients is also the best experience for the animals. We must not forget that they are our partners worthy of our attention and awareness and gratitude.

So Why Did We Trademark Terms from Our Work?

On occasion, we are asked why we spent the time and money to trademark some of the words and symbols of our work. Sometimes we have been criticized for it, especially when the person thinks this is a way for us to be proprietary about our work. This latter simply isn’t true. Anyone who knows us knows we are extremely generous with our time and information. We offer many of our services to clients at no cost, and we also provide brief consultations and information to therapists. We also have lots of free information available. That is not the reason. But we might be getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s first think about copyrights and trademarks. What are they?

The trademark definition by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Organization (USPTO) is “protection for words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods. Trademarks, unlike patents, can be renewed forever as long as they are being used in commerce.” A copyright “protects works of authorship, such as writings, music, and works of art that have been tangibly expressed.” Most of us are familiar with copyrights, as they refer to the actual contents and ideas expressed in the work. Trademarks refer to “marks” which can be any of the things listed in the definition; essentially titles of items, services, logos, and so on used commercially. Copyrights are denoted by the symbol ©. Trademarks are denoted by a TM when an application has been made, and by the ® once they have been fully approved and registered.

The following are trademarks of the Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc., and its International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®. The latter represents the AAPT work of both of us.

International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®
Animal Assisted Play Therapy®
Canine Assisted Play Therapy®
Equine Assisted Play Therapy®





These marks are to be used only by people approved by the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® [including the ®]. For example, people who are certified in AAPT practice are permitted to use the logos.

Trademarks refer to commercial use, but we would certainly hope that people would stay within their scope of practice and use the terms non-commercially only if they have had full training in AAPT. AAPT is a distinct form of practice. It does not refer to the conduct of AAIs that are simply playful. It also refers to practice that goes beyond both play therapy and animal-assisted therapy. There are a number of unique features to it and many other criteria that must be met. It represents a very specific way of working even though there are many forms it can take to reflect the unique combination of client, therapist, animal, and environment. We were the first to use these terms by many years, and we had to prove that to the USPTO along with AAPT’s unique character, which we did successfully.

We decided to trademark these “marks” for one simple reason: we wanted to protect the quality of the work that we call Animal Assisted Play Therapy®. As you might see from this blog, there is a great deal, theoretically, attitudinally, practically, and related to skill-building that goes into the practice of AAPT. This is true of the studies that have been done on AAPT, too. There is a growing body of research that specifically focuses on AAPT as we have developed it. Our certification program takes 1-1/2 to 2 years to complete because it is based on demonstrated competencies, and there are many excellent individuals who have achieved that honor. This means that those listed as certified on our website had to show us all their skills and knowledge and ability to apply AAPT with a variety of clients while following all the principles.

The people certified to date also work with a variety of species, including dogs, horses, cats, goats, rabbits, guinea pigs, pigs, cows, and birds. The same principles for the AAPT process apply to all species, and all those conducting AAPT must learn about the ethology, behavior, and body language of the species with which they work. This is a considerable amount of work.

To distinguish and retain this level of quality, we thought the trademarks were important. Furthermore, AAPT is a “thing” that is distinct from other AAIs, a unique combination of the elements briefly discussed here and covered more fully in our book and other writings.

We have seen a number of individuals use the term AAPT to refer to their own work despite having no training in it (even though some might have had other AAI training).  Our work has also been plagiarized several times in the past. What is troubling is that often these individuals share videos and photos of their work online that violate the principles of AAPT significantly. Their animals often look stressed or crowded or depersonalized. We do not want others to think that these representations are what AAPT is all about. We are dedicated to the welfare and well-being of the animals, the appropriateness of the play therapy interventions, and the quality of the relationships involved in the practice of AAPT. We want what we have built over nearly 20 years to mean something and to avoid having it be diluted by those who don’t understand the essence of it. We also want to be fair to the people who have put in the time and hard work to become certified.

We welcome people who wish to learn more about AAPT, and we have a number of avenues to do so. There are inexpensive online courses available as well as our in-person skill-building hands-on workshops. We have supervision in 4-person groups online. We encourage people to learn about it, develop their skills in it, and to conduct independent research on it. [One study clearly demonstrated that our training programs develop self-efficacy in practicing professionals.] We offer a supportive, noncritical, fun environment in which to learn how to connect more fully and authentically with one’s animals, and to then help one’s clients do the same. We have a presence on social media, including a well-moderated facebook group, Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, in which everyone is invited to share and learn more about how to work with animals following principles drawn from AAPT.


Heading into the Future

People from many countries around the world have had training in AAPT, and its popularity is growing. While our in-person trainings are on hold due to the pandemic until we are certain we can hold them safely, our self-paced online courses are available all the time. We also hope to continue with this blog and offer some shorter webinars on special topics. We have a few other projects, including the new book, to complete.

In the past 4 years, we have rolled out our Certified AAPT Supervisors and Instructors program. We are pleased with the current Certified Instructors and regret that they have had to postpone most of the workshops for the spring and summer. This year we will develop an AAPT Certification Board. The mark of a true certification program is that (1) it vouches for the quality of those it certifies (rather than simply indicating that they have completed program requirements, and (b) those evaluating certification candidates are in an independent organizational structure so that evaluators are not the same as the trainers. We have been moving in this direction but needed to ensure we had sufficient people trained to a high level to take part in this. The AAPT Certification Board will ensure that candidates have completed all the requirements and determine if they meet competency levels to a high degree. Details are being worked out as we write this.

We look forward to the many new participants who must wait until later in the year for their Level 1 training and the eager returning individuals who also have had to postpone their Level 2 training until later in the year. It is exciting to see the enthusiasm and quality of all these people interested in AAPT!

–Risë VanFleet and Tracie Faa-Thompson


*Animal Assisted Play Therapy is a trademark of the Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc. and its International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®.

The International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® offers online and live training courses for those interested in the many aspects of involving animals in a voluntary and reciprocal way in  their mental health, allied health, and education services.

Coauthor Tracie Faa-Thompson, MA (Soc/Crim), AASW, PGdip NDPT, co-creator of the field of Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, is shown here with the late great Sailor.

Coauthor Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, co-creator of the field of Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, is shown here with Josie Patches, Murrie, and Kirrie.












Article and photos © 2020, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, All rights reserved.