Pets in Play Therapy Research

by | Jan 5, 2023 | Human-animal interventions, Children, families, & animals

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Dr. VanFleet has conducted a qualitative/survey study of play therapists who use animals in their work. Full results from 83 participants in this 2006-2008 study are now available.

Sponsor: Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc.
Investigator: Risë VanFleet, Ph.D., RPT-S

November 2007

This document contains a brief description and summary of results to date for the Pet Play Therapy Study conducted under the auspices of the Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc. The study is ongoing, and greater details will be available in approximately 1 year.


The study was undertaken as an exploratory, qualitative study of the ways that play therapists have involved animals in their work. It is the first known study of its kind, and qualitative methods were chosen to help determine future research questions and approaches. The study uses an open-ended survey, and to date, 83 respondents have have submitted their information. The data reported below is based on the first 83 respondents.


Potential respondents were recruited in three ways: (1) by a notice posted on the webpages of the Association for Play Therapy, (b) by an email to all Branch presidents of the Association for Play Therapy, asking them to inform their members, and (c) by announcements made at conferences where the investigator was a keynote speaker. Snowball sampling methods were also applied with respondents in the first 3 months of the study.

Because this was not a random sample, no conclusions can be drawn about the percentages of play therapists who use animals in their work, nor was that an intention of this study. It is unknown what biases may be represented in this volunteer sample. Even so, this study was an initial attempt to gather information about the ways that play therapists have involved animals, and in that respect, it yielded a great deal of information. This information will then be used to design more rigorous studies in this field.

Respondents reported spending from 10 minutes to 2 hours completing the survey, with an average of 30 minutes. Many shared photographs and enthusiastic stories about the animals they have used in their work.

Of the 83 respondents included in this preliminary summary, they had spent an average of 10 years conducting play therapy, with a range of 3 to 30 years. 97% of the sample were licensed; 67% were counselors, 10% each were psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family therapists. 3% were not licensed.

Of the respondents, 33% were RPT-Ss (Registered Play Therapist/Supervisors), and 33% had earned the RPT credential. Another 17% were working toward the RPT, and 17% were not seeking a play therapy credential.

Data Analysis

Most of the data were in the form of responses to open-ended questions. The investigator tried to avoid preconceived ideas and permitted the data themselves to suggest groupings and eventual categorization of the data. This method of developing grounded theory will yield hypotheses for more rigorous quantitative and qualitative exploration in the future.

To provide a modest “check” on the investigator’s impressions of the response categories, two other people were asked to review subsets of the data and develop categories of responses themselves. There was remarkable agreement among the three individuals who looked at the data independently.


The primary findings of the data from 83 respondents are listed below. Some questions in the survey elicited similar types of responses to each other, and they have been collapsed into a single category for reporting purposes.

Other Background Information
Of the 83 respondents, 95% had pets when they were children. Of these, 98% of them had dogs, 67% had cats, 33% each had birds and horses, and smaller percentages had other animals, such as rabbits, turtles, and fish. These percentages total more than 100% because many respondents had more than one type of pet when growing up. Of those who had pets when they were children, 25% had one pet at a time, and 67% had 2 to 4 pets at a time. The remainder had more. 75% grew up on or near a farm or ranch; the rest did not.

All of the respondents currently had pets or animals residing with them. These included a very wide range of animals, all of which will not be listed here. 98% of respondents had dogs; 58% had cats, 15% had horses or ponies. Smaller percentages had gerbils, ferrets, rabbits, fish, snakes, goats, donkeys, and others. 84% of the sample reported more than one animal at home at present. The average number of pets was 5, with the range from 1 to 18. There were only a few respondents with very high numbers of animals, and it is likely that their numbers raised the average. The mode was 3 animals.

Pets Used in Play Therapy
Dogs were the most frequently used animals in play therapy, with 75% of respondents indicating they incorporated them. 25% reported having fish in the office, and cats, rabbits, and horses were the next most frequently used (17% of respondents each). Others reported using fat-tailed geckos, anoles, snakes, chickens, other birds, squirrels, and other animals. A full listing of animals incorporated into play therapy will be included in the final report.

Half the sample said they used animals in their play therapy work “some of the time,” while 42% said “most of the time.” The remaining 8% reported “rarely.”

The Value of Pets in Play Therapy

This question yielded a wide range of answers that were eventually categorized using the methods described above. They are listed below in order of greatest frequency.

Mentioned very frequently:

  • The animals help children overcome their fears, reduce their defenses, open up, share, and relate more readily to the therapist.
  • They help children feel accepted. The animals show affection, interest, and attention that children need. The animals often seemed delighted to greet and be with the children.
  • They provide an effective way for children to learn about themselves and their relationships—to experience attachment and connection to another being.

Mentioned frequently:

  • Animals help children connect to nature and help them appreciate animals that are misunderstood.
  • They help children relax and calm down, reducing some of the anxieties that bring children to therapy in the first place. They provide comfort for children.
  • They give children experiences of joy, playfulness, and fun. They invite laughter and release.
  • They empower children and build their confidence. Children take responsibility for safe interactions with the animals, and they learn better discipline in order to do so.
  • They provide sensory benefits, including touch/tactile experiences and physical affection that are not always possible with the therapist.

Mentioned less frequently:

  • Animals allow more nonverbal communication.
  • They sometimes have similar personality characteristics or histories to children and help children resolve their own problems by helping the animal.
  • They provide emotional safety. Children can work on their issues from a safe “distance.”
  • They provide a model of living in the “here and now.”
  • They help children develop empathy and gentleness.

Types of Problems
This question sought the types of problems for which respondents thought animal-assisted play therapy could help. Most respondents mentioned a wide range of applications. They are listed below from most frequently mentioned to least frequently mentioned.

  • Conduct disorders/ODD
  • Attachment problems/RAD; trust and relationship problems
  • Anxiety, OCD, phobias
  • PTSD, including traumatic events, abuse/neglect, domestic violence
  • Anger, rage, aggression, when children have history of hurting animals
  • Loss, grief, and depression
  • Boundary issues
  • School problems, learning disabilities, truancy
  • All problems
  • Self-esteem and confidence problems
  • Shyness
  • Chemical dependency
  • Stress related to physical disabilities
  • Stressed family relationships
  • Difficulties with peers or working in teams (to build teamwork or leadership)

Ways that Animals/Pets are Involved in Play Therapy

This question asked respondents for up to 3 ways they included animals in their work. They are listed by frequency of response:

Mentioned Very Frequently:

  • Animal is simply present in the office: This helps children be less anxious or serious; helps child open up; provides support and comfort. The animal’s presence seemed to increase children’s sense of safety in therapy and led to breakthroughs in children’s anxieties and resistance.
  • Children are encouraged to pet, groom, and nurture the animal: This helps children learn to be gentle, how to touch appropriately, and seems to develop a sense of trust.
  • Animal is used as part of nondirective play therapy. The child can choose the level of the animal’s participation. This was often mentioned as a source of acceptance for the child.

Mentioned Frequently:

  • Children are involved in training the animal: This builds children’s skills and confidence, gives the child more self-direction and control.
  • Children learn how to play and interact with the animal. This helps children learn appropriate social interactions, including boundaries.
  • Animal is involved in desensitizing children’s fears of animals. This helps children overcome their fears of being near animals.
  • Observations of the animal’s behavior and interactions are used to help children learn more about relationships and social skills. This included using the animals to facilitate peer and family relationships. This included some whole-family activities involving the animal to strengthen families.
  • The animal is used to help the child feel safer. This entailed a variety of methods used to help the child feel safer emotionally as well as to help the child learn how to protect him/herself.

Mentioned Less Frequently:

  • Children exercise the animal. This can assist with caretaking as well as serving as a release for frustration or excess energy.
  • Children engage in various games and tasks with the animal. These had a wide range of purposes. Many involved the child in problem-solving.
  • The animal is incorporated into storytelling and therapeutic letter-writing.
  • The therapist draws parallels between the animal’s behavior and the child’s and engages the child in problem solving.

Mentioned Very Infrequently:

  • The child’s interactions with the animal are used to help the family see a different side of the child.
  • Playing with the animal is used as a reward for good behavior.

Types of Play Therapy Activities that Incorporate the Animal

These are listed below in order from most frequently mentioned to least frequently mentioned.

  • Use within nondirective play therapy.
  • Use of animal’s “voice” or humor or affection to assist child’s engagement.
  • Teaching about safe play.
  • Within context of family session.
  • Childhood games incorporating the animal, such as hide-and-seek.
  • As part of exercise and emotional release.
  • To set boundaries.
  • Puppet shows with animal in audience
  • Child incorporates animal into role-plays.
  • Teaching knowledge of animals and the natural world.

Specific Therapeutic Goals

This question was designed to determine the types of specific goals in which therapists used animals to facilitate progress. They are listed in rank order below, with the percentage of respondents who mentioned each particular goal area. (Percentages add up to more than 100 because respondents could offer several answers.)

  • Attachment/relationship-building; trust-building
  • Increase child’s feeling of acceptance, help child feel special
  • Develop or draw out children’s empathy and kindness
  • Reduce anxieties or phobias
  • Increase affective regulation
  • Develop new skills for child; empowerment
  • Improve behavioral regulation
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Enhance exposure to nature; encourage curiosity
  • Improve awareness of boundaries
  • Improve child’s ability to focus
  • Enhance communication
  • Build team and leadership skills


Of the 83 respondents included in this preliminary summary, 58% reported that they were self-educated in the use of animals in therapy. 42% had substantial training from organizations such as the Delta Society, Therapy Dogs International (TDI), or graduate classes.

58% of respondents reported that their animals had had no formal training for this work, but 80% of these respondents did report that they had conducted obedience training independently with their own animals.

42% of respondents reported that their therapy animals had earned certification from Delta Society or TDI. A couple respondents reported that their dogs had earned Canine Good Citizen status (American Kennel Club) and were working toward further credentialing as therapy dogs.

Responses of Children and Families

All of the respondents reported that children were exceptionally responsive to the animal’s involvement in their therapy. The vast majority of respondents used superlatives when describing children’s reactions, such as “delighted,” “love it,” “can’t get enough of it.” Therapists frequently mentioned that children often asked about the animal if it wasn’t there, and they actively searched for the animal when they came in. Many of the responses implied surprise on the therapist’s part that there were so few problems in a variety of settings (therapy office, school, residential program).

Cautions and Potential Problems

Respondents were asked what they saw as potential problems or cautions needed when using animals. They were not asked the extent to which, if any, they had experienced these problems. Responses are listed below, from those most often mentioned to those less often mentioned.

  • Potential injury or stress for animal; children being too rough with animals
  • Potential injury or stress for child
  • Allergies to animals
  • Child fear of animal
  • Lack of training by therapist or animal
  • Managing the behavior of both child and animal simultaneously
  • Improper temperament or poor socialization of animal (inappropriate for therapy)
  • Pet hygiene and health issues (need for vaccinations and cleanliness)
  • Importance of parental permission
  • Extra time needed to care for the animal (breaks for elimination, etc.)
  • Noise, such as barking or meowing
  • Restrictions on use of animals by the setting in which therapist works
  • Child perception of being rejected by animal when animal was tired
  • Animal getting loose

Use of Animal-Related Toys or Items

Nearly all respondents reported that they used animal toys or other items, even if the live animal was not present. These are listed below in terms of how frequently they were mentioned.

Mentioned Very Frequently:

  • Photos, conversations, and stories about children’s own companion animals
  • Puppets, miniatures, and stuff animals
  • Therapeutic storytelling, letter-writing, songs, drawings, journals about animals

Mentioned Frequently:

  • Children’s therapy books featuring animals
  • Books about pet loss
  • Memory books created when child has lost pet, or therapy animal dies
  • Videos about care of animals
  • Metaphors using animals

Mentioned Less Frequently:

  • Veterinary kit in additional to typical medical kit in playroom
  • Craft-making – making animal items, or making toys for pets
  • Items that can be used as animal cages, or animal cages used as prisons for miniatures
  • Games where child pretends to be an animal
  • Miniature replicas that are similar in appearance to therapy animal
  • Interventions where animals serve as the protector
  • Spiritual tie-ins about children’s relationships with living beings

Anecdotes about Pet Play Therapy

The final part of the survey asked respondents to share up to two brief anecdotes about their use of animals in play therapy. There were many fascinating stories included, and these will be compiled in the final report. Respondents had the option at the start of the survey to permit the investigator to contact them for more information about their anecdotes in the future. All respondents gave this permission. At present, respondents to date are being invited to submit brief case studies for possible publication in a book about the use of animals in play therapy.

Specific conclusions about this study are reserved until data collection ceases and the full results are compiled in approximately one year. This report provides sufficient information for readers to generate some of their own hypotheses and conclusions. Caution is urged, however, as this was a preliminary study.