As more people learn about Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT), we get many inquiries about how one gets started in this field. This blogpost is designed to provide some answers to those questions.
If you are unfamiliar with AAPT, this blog from May 2020 (click here) provides some useful details. In short, it is a multidisciplinary field, co-created by Tracie Faa-Thompson (UK) and Risë VanFleet (USA) in which animals are invited into the psychotherapy process, and more specifically, using play therapy approaches. While both of the co-creators had independently developed aspects of AAPT in prior years, the form we see today was created in 2004. Improvements and additions have occurred continuously since that time. It is a systematic form of therapy that is appropriate for mental health, allied health, and education professionals. The VanFleet & Faa-Thompson book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy, was published in 2017 and won a 2018 Maxwell Award for the best book on the human-animal bond (Dog Writers Association of America). The book contains information from VanFleet’s (2007, also an award-winner) book, Play Therapy for Kids & Canines, but it is expanded greatly to represent the growth in the field, and horse and dog examples are used throughout to show how AAPT can be used with quite different species. The table of contents is listed at the end of this article.
Distinguishing hallmarks of AAPT include its emphasis on reciprocal human-animal relationships (the nature of which is defined clearly), the importance of play and humor in the therapeutic and learning process, capitalizing on natural behavior in natural environments, and animal welfare and well-being (also defined specifically). The approach requires that animals actually enjoy the sessions, not merely tolerate them, and interventions to address client needs are built around the personalities, preferences, choices, and agency of the animals. It is believed to be the first type of Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) to use a goodness-of-fit model to ensure that animals have a voice and choice at all times in the process.
If You’d Like to Learn More
If you’re a professional thinking about embarking on any AAI program, it’s a good idea to do your homework. There are many programs and a wide range of quality. There are also different philosophies about the role of animals, the type of therapy that is conducted, consideration of animal needs, the amount of hands-on training available, and the ability of program leaders to actually practice what they preach. It is rare for one program to meet all needs, and in a forthcoming blog we will discuss some of the things to look for and ask about, depending on your own needs.
Full information about the AAPT Training program, the Certifications available, and a Directory of certified individuals (therapists, supervisors, instructors) can be found on the website http://www.iiaapt.org
Training and Online Courses – https://iiaapt.org
Certification Info – https://iiaapt.org/certification/
Certified Professionals – https://iiaapt.org/certified-aapt-professionals/#
Blog and More – https://iiaapt.org/resources/blog/
Shop – https://risevanfleet.com/shop/
If you think that AAPT sounds good, but you’d like to learn more before investing in training in it, here are a couple options that might help you make a decision:
1. Read the book described and pictured above. It is packed full of information about AAPT and the many facets and competencies one develops in this approach. There are numerous case examples of how it works with dogs, horses, and cats (and AAPT applies to other species as well) and as it is applied with children, adolescents, adults, groups, families, and organizations. In addition, the book details how to obtain information about selecting, socializing, training, and building relationships with potential AAPT animals. Other segments help you consider how to set up for AAPT, how to ensure that animals really are enjoying the work you’ve asked them to do, how to put a risk management plan in place, and how to introduce, facilitate, and process sessions from different theoretical orientations (see table of contents at the end of this blogpost).
2. In addition to reading the book, you might want to take a thorough online course, Introduction to Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, which is priced very reasonably and offers 14 continuing education credits. It is a self-paced course, and it is one of two that are required before taking the 4-day in-person Level 1 AAPT training workshop. This course also uses the book mentioned above as a text (purchased separately).
These two items might help you determine if the values, principles, and goals of AAPT are a good fit for you (See? Goodness-of-fit applies to us, too!). There are other online courses available, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but to become competent in conducting AAPT, you need the hands-on components. We might read a book about surgery, but that does not make us a surgeon, let alone a good one! This applies to AAPT as well. The good news is that much of the work needed to develop top-notch skills in AAPT is both fascinating and fun, especially because the workshops are offered in a user-friendly, strengths-based manner.
To find information about this online course — click here.
The other online course that is required in advance of the Level 1 in-person workshop is called Canine Communication in AAPT. That can also be ordered as a stand-alone course, and it is applicable to all types of AAI, and even to living more happily with dogs. It covers body language of dogs in detail. It, too, is a self-paced online course.
To find more information about this online course — click here.
If you decide to take either or both of these courses, you may order them at any time. If you then register for the Level 1 in-person workshop at a later date, remind us that you have already purchased and taken these two courses, and we will refund your money for the online course/s (this is because these courses are included in the fees for the Level 1 workshop, and we don’t expect people to pay for them twice just for trying to get an early start!). The refund is for the course/s , but not for the additional texts or CDs that go with them (when you go to the links, you will get more information). Also, when you order, you should immediately get an automated receipt and the information you need to access the courses.
Whether you take the online courses initially as stand-alone courses or wait to take them right before attending the Level 1 in-person workshop, the next step in learning the many features and competencies of AAPT is to take the Level 1 AAPT Training. We urge people of all experience levels to take this workshop because this approach is rather different in a variety of ways from other forms of AAT or AAI. We have had many well-trained professionals who have many years of experience with AAT tell us that our workshop represented a different way of thinking about relationships and the entire process and that they learned a great deal. The course is designed to cover both depth and breadth in this field, with much information about dogs and horses, with details about how this can apply to other species as well. The feedback that occurs during hands-on activities as well as upon request during the training allows participants of different knowledge levels to learn at their own pace during the same workshop.
Because participants have taken the two online courses, most of the Level 1 training is practical. While there is some lecture and didactic material, most of the course focuses on hands-on exercises and videos of actual AAPT sessions that illustrate the method and the principles. It includes numerous hands-on activities where participants can develop their animal observation, handling, and facilitation skills in an enjoyable environment where individualized feedback is available. They learn how to incorporate the needs of the client AND the animals in developing new and creative interventions. Most individuals who complete Level 1, and who have an appropriate animal with whom to work, are ready to start conducting AAPT soon after the training. We always urge them to join our small (4 person) online supervision groups to get inexpensive and expert support and guidance as they begin this work. Certified Instructors and the Co-Creators of AAPT (Risë and Tracie) are eager to help people prepare for this work, to ensure that all practical and ethical issues are addressed, and to help their fellow professionals adjust some of their previous work around this novel model.
Where Can I Find A Level 1 AAPT Workshop?
Interest in AAPT has been growing rapidly around the world. In May 2019 we rolled out a train-the-trainer program through which Instructors of the Level 1 Workshop could be certified. They go through a rigorous training and mentorship program, and the Level 1 Workshop is the same curriculum any place that it is offered. To date, the Level 1 training has been offered in many places throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Shorter introductory programs and webinars have been offered by Certified AAPT Instructors in even more locations and countries.
The current schedule of Level 1 workshops is under the Training tab at www.iiaapt.org. The full flyer is available there as well ( or click here to go to the pdf for a direct download). Workshops are kept small (usually 12-18 people maximum) and sell out far in advance; new ones are added periodically.
Another option is to arrange for a Level 1 workshop at your location, although this is not an easy workshop to host. Please contact Dr. Risë VanFleet at firstname.lastname@example.org to get the document that describes what is needed to host. Adding locations can be limited by the schedules of the Instructors.
After Level 1…
After the completion of Level 1, many participants begin using AAPT in their work, provided they have an appropriate animal. This is a good time for further development and consolidation of skills and understanding of how AAPT works according to the principles and methods learned. Small affordable online supervision groups (limited to 4 people) with a Certified AAPT Supervisor help practitioners get off to a good start.
Even highly experienced professionals typically report that they feel “deskilled” when first using AAPT. There are many things to keep in mind during AAPT sessions, and it takes some practice and guidance to do that smoothly and naturally. The good news is that it usually doesn’t take long before one’s clinical skills return and the additional AAPT skills become integrated. This is perfectly natural, as with the use of any new skills, there is a period of time in which there must be considerable conscious effort applied. As skills are mastered, it becomes easier to use those skills without thinking so deliberately about them. The key is to master the skills and build them into a way of being with one’s animals, and then to bring those relationships into the therapeutic process. This typically takes time, guidance (through training and supervision), and practice. Supervision is done in a user-friendly manner in which Certified Supervisors look for the things that supervisees are doing well and then make suggestions as needed. It is a collaborative process where people are encouraged to take an active part in their own learning.
After getting some supervision and practice in AAPT, a Level 2 AAPT Workshop and 2 more online courses are available. These are designed to strengthen participants’ ability to apply AAPT to a wide range of goals, to handle spontaneous situations that come up during AAPT, and to deepen skills. It also focuses more heavily on the creative use of AAPT, and how to adapt it to the personalities, choices, and preferences of each unique animal who is involved. Participants are encouraged to bring their dogs to the Level 2 program (when feasible), and opportunities to demonstrate many of the competencies needed for certification are provided.
The Certification program is outlined elsewhere as noted above. Other AAPT-related programs are available, such as conferences and specialty animal topics. These are all noted on the website.
Certified Animal Ethology and Behavior Specialists in AAPT
We have always welcomed animal professionals to our workshops. As we see it, it takes a community of people and expertise to support the learning and practice of the highest quality AAPT. Sometimes people have dual backgrounds in mental health/allied health/education and in animal behavior/health/ethology. Other times, animal professionals are interested in training candidates who are learning AAPT and who wish to develop the best possible relationships with their animals. Since AAPT uses a different philosophy in terms of evaluating animals and building interventions around them, it is valuable to have animal trainers and behaviorists available who understand this approach. Sometimes, too, these animal professionals are involved in co-leading the Level 1 or Level 2 workshops to bring their unique perspectives to the process.
The AAPT International Certification Board also offers credentialing that recognizes the substantial amount of training and competence needed to serve in animal professional and support positions for AAPT therapists, supervisors, and instructors. Those with animal-related backgrounds and credentials take the online courses and the Level 1 training, and then often assist with Level 2 workshops. They can be certified according to the guidelines provided in the document at www.iiaapt.org/certification/.
So What’s in the Book?
Finally, I thought it might be helpful to provide a list of the chapters included in the 4 parts of our Animal Assisted Play Therapy book (2017). This might help you make a choice about reading it.
Foreword by Aubrey H. Fine, EdD
Foreword by Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB
PART I: THE FIELD OF ANIMAL ASSISTED PLAY THERAPY®
Chapter 1: Beginnings
Chapter 2: Definitions
Chapter 3: Background, Principles, and Goals
Chapter 4: Dogs and Horses
Chapter 5: Relationships: The Cornerstone of the AAPT Approach
PART II: PREPARATION FOR AAPT WORK
Chapter 6: Overview of Competencies
Chapter 7: Therapist Competencies
Chapter 8: Animal Preparation for AAPT
Chapter 9: Building the Therapist-Animal Relationship
Chapter 10: Practical Matters
PART III: ANIMAL ASSISTED PLAY THERAPY® IN ACTION
Chapter 11: Getting Started
Chapter 12: Foundations of AAPT Interventions
Chapter 13: Applications of AAPT
Chapter 14: Therapeutic Processing in AAPT
Chapter 15: Transitions and Endings
PART IV: PROFESSIONAL ISSUES, ETHICS, AND WELFARE
Chapter 16: Animal Welfare
Chapter 17: Professional Issues and Ethics
Chapter 18: Research and Resources
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. www.iiaapt.org.
Article and photos © 2021, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®. All rights reserved.