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Dogs and other species often need far more space than we realize.

This week I’ve seen a number of therapy animal videos on television. Some have been geared toward the holidays and some have been about the involvement of therapy dogs to help children while getting vaccinated. As is too often the case, many of these videos show animals whose body language clearly conveys they are not enjoying the interaction and are, in fact, quite stressed by it.

Unfortunately, I also see this on some therapy animal websites or social media posts. Dogs are held tightly in place by uncomfortable equipment, or horses are surrounded by children or even adults who are eager to touch them. The animals’ body language clearly shows that they are not enjoying the interactions.

One of the most important things we can do for the animals who live and work with us is to learn their body language and then watch it carefully all the time. This is especially true for animals involved in therapy work where our clients do not fully understand animal behavior and needs. While we can help them learn when it fits with therapeutic goals, we are our animals’ first defense. Related to this, we need to understand the species with whom we work and what ethology and our own careful observations have revealed about their natural behavior and needs.

While it is understandable that visiting therapy dogs must be on leash while working within hospitals and similar settings, other forms of therapy work with animals, such as Animal Assisted Play Therapy® conducted by professionals in their offices or outdoors, can be done with dogs off-leash and horses at liberty as long as the therapists have appropriate training for their animals and themselves.

In AAPT, dogs work off-leash most of the time to permit voluntary engagement.

The process of ensuring that dogs actually enjoy the work we ask them to do applies to all species we bring into our work lives. We need to determine each individual’s interests and choices and to incorporate them into all of our decisions about what we expect of the animals.

It is critical to ensure our animals can make their own choices about involvement in therapy work. This strengthens the animals’ agency while demonstrating for clients a respectful, reciprocal relationship.

Providing an Exit Route

One of the simplest ways we can respect our therapy animals’ need for space while giving them true choice about their own participation is to provide “exit routes” at all times. This means that no matter what activities we use, we make sure there is a sufficient opening that our dogs, horses, cats, goats and others can safely move away from the clients and us. In their eagerness, our clients might naturally gather around the animals or close the opening, so we must continuously remain aware of the exit route and remind our clients to widen the opening when it narrows.

Having exit routes in outdoor therapy settings requires some forethought. If animals choose to leave the vicinity of clients, will they be safe? Is there sufficient space once they leave the immediate area? Will they have access to water? Grazing? Is shelter from the elements necessary and available?

Exit routes in indoor therapy settings also require planning. Is there space within the room for the animal to rest undisturbed? Are dog or cat beds provided? Is water available? Is there an area outside of the room where the dog can leave if their hearing is assaulted by noise of certain toys or expressive child clients? When play therapy rooms often have many toy items, props, or “stations” within the room, it requires extra effort to ensure that animals have a predictable “safe space” whenever they are in the room. This might be under a table or desk or a corner of the room which is off-limits to clients.

This cat has moved away from the action to watch from afar.

Helping Animals Learn That They May Use the Exit Route

While the use of an exit route seems simple enough, there are two other factors to bear in mind. First, the animal needs to realize that they are permitted to use the opening. If dogs have previously been held nearby on a leash and kept in situations they would like to leave, they might have learned that when they are working they must resign themselves to situations even if they are stressed. The video and photos I referenced at the start of this post are likely animals who have learned this message. If horses are stressed by something in the environment, including client behavior, but have been restrained by equipment or a blocked exit, they, too, might have learned that they do not have choice when working. If we have not afforded our animals with a history of agency, we have to start there. We must teach them that they can leave whenever they wish and that no one will push them to return unless they choose to do so. This can take time when they have learned otherwise. It often starts with our own relationships where we gradually help them understand that we are no longer going to “require” that they participate. This includes foregoing all equipment or devices that force them to stay and a commitment to use positive reinforcement based training. Even then, we must avoid luring the animals back to the clients using food or other items of interest. Our consistency matters in this. We can invite them back, but we don’t exert pressure or use enticements when they have made their choice.

AAPT Level 2 workshop participants allowed these horses to approach them first.

Animals learn that they may approach or leave of their own accord.





When the horses left to graze, no one followed them. Their choice to leave was honored.

Helping Clients Understand and Accept the Animals’ Choices

The second factor that bears exploration is the impact of animal choices on therapy clients. While we want our clients to have good experiences with the animals and to build their relationships with them, the animals sometimes have other plans. They might leave because they are tired, bored, stressed, or simply because they have other items on their agendas. Clients who have expectations and desires to be with the animals for the entire allotted time might have strong reactions when the animals choose to leave. They might feel rejected or angry or disappointed. They might take it personally. As therapists who understand the need for animals to make choices about their participation, we still might feel disappointed ourselves, having hoped for more interaction between clients and animals.

The thing we need to remember is that the animals are not the therapists–we are. The animals are there to assist, but when it comes to client reactions and perceptions, it is our job to help them. Sometimes we have the opportunity to help the clients alter their behavior, as in the following example.

Case Example 1:
Six-year-old Artie wanted Josie Patches, a beagle mix AAPT dog, to eat some plastic toy food. Josie clearly knew there was nothing there for her to eat, so she began looking at some other toys across the room. Artie followed her with the plastic food. Josie looked behind her at Artie as he approached while in a demanding voice, he said, “Josie. Get back here! You must eat your dinner!” As a clinician I realized that Artie was playing out some of the authority difficulties had had experienced with his parents, but I also knew that Josie did not want to be part of this play. As Josie began to move away again, I facilitated the interaction by saying, “Artie, I know you want to have Josie eat her meals when you tell her to, but Josie just moved away from you. Do you have any idea of why she did that?” Artie thought for a few seconds and then said, “Because I was yelling at her?” I replied, “Maybe. I don’t think she wants to play that particular way. Perhaps you can think of a way to handle this situation differently.”  Artie said, “I don’t like yelling either.” He then decided to “force feed” one of the dolls as he enacted his play theme. Later in the session after he had finished the controlling food play, he called Josie to him. When she came to him without hesitation, he gently offered her some actual treats. 

At other times, when children are disappointed or feel rejected when the animals remove themselves, we respond in a different way, perhaps with a reframe or other ways of thinking about relationships, as in the next example below.

Case Example 2:
Jackie was 11 years old and had been a victim of bullying. Her best friend had quit talking to her for no reason and then joined another girl in making fun of her clothing. Jackie had begun questioning whether or not she was “good enough” or “pretty enough” to have friends. For half of each session Jackie worked with Murrie, a border collie-hound mix AAPT dog. Murrie was very attentive during certain activities, but his attentiveness waned one day and he went to lie in his bed, which was off-limits to clients. Jackie began to cry when he did this. I empathically listened to what she seemed to be feeling, “That made you really unhappy when Murrie decided to go lie down.” She nodded her head and looked over at Murrie, who didn’t move. I continued my reflections, “You really wish he would play with you, but he doesn’t seem into that right now.” Jackie quietly said, “Even Murrie doesn’t like me anymore.” Again I reflected, “It really hurts when it seems like others don’t like you.” She nodded.  Once it was clear that I had listened accurately and understood her feelings, I wanted to help her reframe her way of viewing the situation a little. I said something like, “I know that sometimes people can hurt our feelings, and we can think about ways to handle that if you’d like, but when it comes to dogs, I don’t think they intend to hurt us. Sometimes they just have some reasons of their own for doing things.” She briefly looked hopeful. I added, “Maybe you can think of some reasons why Murrie might have gone over there?” The session proceeded and she was able to identify that Murrie might have been tired, or he didn’t want to do that activity any more. I then could highlight how it was good to think that maybe Murrie had his own reasons and that he certainly didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I reminded her how happily he had played with her right before that. She was able to go along with this reframe. In subsequent sessions, we used the Murrie metaphor to help her decide how to cope when a classmate was being unkind to her. 

AAPT dogs like Murrie usually enjoy many toys and activities, but they should be able to opt out of the process so they know that their choices will be honored.

By giving animals the space and egress that they desire, we strengthen the voluntary nature of their involvement in our work. By knowing our animals well, as a species as well as individuals, we can design therapeutic activities and interventions that not only help meet client goals but also are of interest to the animals. A useful step toward this is to ensure that we are providing the space and an ever-present exit route that animals can use to meet their own needs during the process.


*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.

Author Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, CAEBI, co-creator of the field of Animal Assisted Play Therapy® with Tracie Faa-Thompson, is coauthor with Tracie of this award-winning book. Risë is the president of the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®.

Article and photos © 2021, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, All rights reserved.