Professional Decision Making in Animal Assisted Play Therapy™: How the Goodness-of-Fit Model Impacts Practice

Posted by on Oct 5, 2022

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Bear enjoys tunnels. Tunnel play can provide metaphors for many client challenges or to teach about perspective and creativity.

How do you decide which interventions or activities to conduct when involving animals in therapy or education? Questions like this are often posed by those who are interested in understanding how Animal Assisted Play Therapy™ (AAPT) works. It’s a good question but a complex one. The Maxwell Award-winning book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy (VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2017, click here), offers considerable information including numerous case descriptions on this topic, and the Manual of Animal Assisted Play Therapy Techniques (VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2019) describes 45 specific activities and interventions in detail. (This manual is only available to those completing the online course, Introduction to AAPT;  email info@iiaapt.org for more information.)

Multidisciplinary Application

This question is further complicated by the fact that AAPT is appropriate for different disciplines, such as mental health (social work, counseling, psychotherapy, play therapy, developmental counseling, mental health prevention), allied health (physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, music therapy, recreational therapy, and programs for people with hearing loss), and education (teachers, school counselors, school social workers, those responsible for school dog programs). Furthermore, AAPT can be indicated for children, adolescents, and adults, as well as for individuals and groups. The goals and approaches used in all these options vary greatly. On top of this, therapists might approach their work from a variety of theoretical orientations. For example, mental health professionals might be psychodynamic, humanistic, developmental, interpersonal, behavioral, cognitive, or integrative in approach, to name a few.

While the client/student goals in these areas differ considerably, AAPT is a flexible intervention that can be applied effectively and creatively by different professionals conducting their work in widely varied ways. This is because the core principles represent excellent therapy and education practice, a constant focus on relationships which undergird most helping and empowerment efforts, and a dedicated approach to ensuring that animals always have choice and voice as well as attentiveness by the handlers to their welfare and well-being. The following sections provide a framework for clinical decision-making which also works in educational settings.

The Goodness-of-Fit Model

The Goodness-of-Fit Model is drawn from child development research, and the concept of “fit” between animal and environment is also at the core of the field of ethology. Another blogpost goes into this in more detail: https://iiaapt.org/assessment-of-therapy-animals-using-a-goodness-of-fit-conceptualization/. While many Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) programs evaluate dogs against expected behaviors that would qualify them for the work, AAPT approaches the task of  assessing animals from a different direction. Instead of examining 15 or 30 behaviors believed to be essential for many types of AAI work, the goodness-of-fit model evaluates the personality, preferences, skills, and typical choices of animals on numerous dimensions. This provides a profile of the types of work that that specific animal might be best suited to do and most interested in performing. Interventions are then built around each unique animal rather than expecting the animal to fit a more uniform type of “job description.” There are so many different ways to conduct AAPT that it is usually easy to make room for animals with different personalities and interests.

Animals involved in therapy who show curiosity and voluntarily approach clients can help with attachment goals, social skills, and learning about boundaries and social space.

Clinical Decision Making in AAPT

On occasion I hear about practitioners letting their animals decide which go to work with them, or alternatively, allowing clients or students decide the animals with whom they wish to work. While there are times when these options can be used, it is important to remember that the practitioner is typically the one who needs to decide which animals and which interventions are to be applied in any given situation. This is because AAPT sessions (and other professionally-driven AAIs) depend on complex factors, all of which must be considered to maximize the effectiveness of therapeutic choices. Animals are not “therapists” or “co-therapists” as they are not qualified to make complex decisions on behalf of clients, and clients rely on practitioners’ training, supervision, and experience to help them reach their goals. In all cases, the needs of the animals and the clients are paramount, but the ultimate decision about any specific intervention must reside with the professional. While practitioners might determine, on occasion, to allow a client and an animal to make some choices completely on their own, even that approach needs (a) to be embedded within the treatment plan which reflects considerable client input and (b) to consider the free choices, preferences, personality, and enjoyment of the animals.

Introducing novel items to well-socialized animals can provide a variety of useful interactions and help with goals relating to handling novel or unfamiliar situations in life.

There are four factors that typically go into AAPT decisions about how to proceed with therapeutic or educational intervention, after a full evaluation of the client/student situation and the establishment of a treatment plan and specific goals have been completed. These are as follows.

Client/student goals

The treatment or educational goals determined by the initial assessment and treatment planning process must always be part of decisions made by practitioners for each session. The goals drive the therapeutic or educational process, and they are not set aside. The work to reach those goals must be flexible, but the goals themselves are critical to progress. Goals can be revised through the treatment planning process, but they form the foundation of decisions made during AAPT just as they do for other forms of psychotherapy or education.

Animal personality and preferences

AAPT places the needs of animals on par with human clients. Practitioners must advocate and ensure animals’ welfare and well-being at home and at work. Furthermore, in AAPT it is a requirement that animal agency and enjoyment are ensured at all times. In the goodness-of-fit process, the animal’s unique features are part of any session planning, as are the animal’s volitional choices, not only in terms of participation, but also in what that animal is willing and interested in doing at any given time. It is never sufficient to ask or push the animal to engage in any behavior or interaction that the animal “tolerates.” It falls upon the practitioner to use interventions the animal enjoys, as shown by body signals and behavioral communications. Natural behaviors are encouraged.

Some animals like to solve puzzles, and this can sometimes bring out problem-solving or helping behaviors in clients.

The practitioner’s methods of working

Professionals are required by their ethical guidelines to practice within the scope of their training. Their training, supervision, and experience couple with their personalities and life experiences to help define the theories and methods of intervention with which they are competent and confident. This helps define the specific types of methods that might be chosen and how the animal partners might be incorporated. This is not a simple process and one of the reasons it is never a good idea to take one’s lovely companion animals to work without first getting substantial training in how to conduct AAT in ways that will harm neither the client nor the animal.

The environment available for the work

The environment in AAPT refers to everything surrounding the client/s, animal/s, and therapist. This includes each individual’s history, the physical environment (space, location, indoors-0utdoors, grass or type of flooring, weather, noise, potential intrusions, confidentiality, equipment and props, etc.), the people present and their behavior, and other animals present, to name a few. The environment also includes the time preceding the session, amount of sleep everyone has had, and current health of all involved, as well as the tone of the session set by the practitioner in interaction with all present. Play and playfulness are part of the environment AAPT practitioners try to create.

Murrie waits for an activity to resume. This typically is done outdoors, but on a rainy day can occur indoors if there’s enough room.

How AAPT Practitioners Make Decisions

These four aspects of the situation must be considered thoroughly, both in planning for the session and during the session where some flexibility, unexpected behaviors or events, and quick thinking might be needed. At all times in AAPT, practitioners must keep client and animal needs in the forefront of their thinking, and decisions must always preserve both. Because AAPT values the incorporation of natural animal behaviors in the interventions used, it is  important that natural environments are chosen for the work most of the time to ensure the familiarity of the surroundings and the specific needs of the species involved. Horses on grass and dogs on non-slip floors, goats with access to browsing and cats who can reach high places are key. Every environment used for AAPT must have a “safe zone” to which animals have ready access and where no clients are permitted to follow or intrude.

AAPT certification includes many competencies of its practitioners because of the complexities of all of these factors. Two related to this blogpost are “split attention” (always watching clients and animals during sessions) and “proactive attention” (thinking ahead in terms of the specific animals and clients and anticipating potential problems or outcomes).  While all this can be challenging, it also offers opportunities for creativity. Books and manuals offer techniques and activities, but professionals involved in AAPT learn to think creatively while considering these four factors in order to create new interventions based upon each unique animal partner and that meet the needs of various clients. This process of building new interventions based on these factors is practiced during the Level 1 and Level 2 AAPT workshops, but bearing these items in mind, experienced professionals can apply them as long as they have solid knowledge of AAPT/AAI principles.

In general, the process is as follows:
1. What are the goal/s right now for my client/student?
2. What does my animal enjoy and what does my animal know that might relate to this goal?
3. What would I do if I did not have the animal here? Is there a way I can incorporate the animal into that in a way that still honors the animal’s agency and interests?
4. What props or environment do I need to do this, and is that available to me right now? Is there a way I can adjust the environment or adapt the idea to what environmental options I have today?
5. When in doubt, if I can’t think of a particular intervention, I can always look in a techniques manual for ideas that might meet the considerations above.

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Photo credits: Risë VanFleet

Above: Dr. Risë VanFleet with Josie Patches, Murrie, and the late Kirrie (who demonstrates how animals are encouraged to make their own choices in AAPT. 

Author: Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, CAEBI is the founder and president of the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® which offers online and in-person workshops for professionals interested in the many aspects of involving animals in AAPT. AAPT is unique in the strong emphasis it places on relationships with animals that are equal to relationships with other humans, and where animals have agency and choice about their involvement. In AAPT, animals must truly enjoy the work they do, not merely tolerate it. This is accomplished through the goodness-of-fit concept, fluency in reading animal body language, and knowing how to respond in ways that are animal-friendly while still honoring the therapeutic process fully. She can be reached at info@iiaapt.org.

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