There’s no doubt about it–animals are a hot topic these days. We see stories in the media about them all the time. Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI) have become a popular subject, and the news often describes the many benefits they offer humans through visitation and social support programs as well as from their assistance in different forms of medical, mental health, and educational therapies and programs. Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is being offered by many professionals, and training programs showing professionals how to get started in AAT abound.
There is something missing, however. Most of these stories and program descriptions discuss benefits to humans without ever considering what it might mean to these animals who are conscripted into this type of work. Even the research focuses heavily on the human benefits.
As practitioners, we are happy to share our lovely animal companions with others, but have we asked the animals whether or not they want to do this work, or if they enjoy it as much as we assume? With a few exceptions, we have not. Furthermore, we might be surprised at the answers when we do ask and really try to hear their answers.
Well-Meaning But Intrusive Humans
Space is very important to animals. It plays an important role in how they interact with members of their own species, how they avoid predators, how they feel safe and survive in the environment in which they live. Many species have developed characteristic patterns of using space, although there is some individual variation. Humans, too, have characteristic ways of occupying space and interacting with each other and the environment. Unfortunately, we frequently assume that animals orient to things the same way we do, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our behavior can be intrusive or scary, too direct, and too familiar. How often have we seen someone else’s dog and rushed up to pet it? How often have we met a horse and begun stroking between the eyes? And going one step farther, how often have we encouraged our clients or students to do the same?
Back in 2002, I read a book that influenced my awareness and thinking substantially. It is now considered a classic in the field of animal behavior and human-animal interaction: Dr. Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash (2002, Ballantine). In it, Dr. McConnell discusses the differences between human behavior and canine behavior, and how a lack of awareness of these can lead to stressful situations. Humans approach directly with eye contact. Canines approach indirectly using curved bodies and with little direct eye contact. The differences are there with most animal species, so if we want to interact with them, we need to understand their body language and usual ways of behaving and interacting. When we learn to respect their needs in this regard, we avoid creating stress for the animals and in our relationships with them. We are then able to help our clients do the same.
Seeing Through Their Eyes
While it takes education and awareness, it is both valuable and fascinating to increase our ability to see the world through another’s eyes and experiences. When we learn about body language in depth for any species with whom we work, we begin to see our own animals more clearly. There are individual differences that we must learn, too, so if we begin looking, we will see more. There are a growing number of excellent resources on this topic, especially for dogs (see Turid Rugaas’s seminal book, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals; as well as Carol Byrnes’s CD, What Is My Dog Saying?; and our own, Canine Communication in Animal Assisted Play Therapy® online course that focuses on body language in AAI/AAPT (https://risevanfleet.com/shop/product/canine-communication-in-aapt/ ). More information is becoming available for other species, too, such as Carol Byrnes & Jacqueline Munera’s CD, What Is My Cat Saying? and Rachaël Draaisma’s book, Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses.
In our own field of Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, Tracie Faa-Thompson and I have made it a requirement that the animals enjoy the work, not merely tolerate it. We emphasize the development of fluency in reading body language and knowing the difference between observation (what you can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch) and interpretation (which requires environmental context).
Seeing their point of view requires this understanding of the species, but it goes beyond it. We have to put ourselves in their place as much as we can. Standing next to them and looking at what they seem to be focused upon, or noticing their nostrils flaring and attending with our own less sensitive noses to determine what it might be, can give us clues.
Just today, I used this approach when Josie Patches, one of my play therapy dogs, failed to come in when called. She usually has a great recall. I knew that something else was on her radar, and so I observed for a short while. She was out on the edge of our property next to a large field, sniffing very carefully around a large tree limb that had blown down a couple days ago. I whistled, which usually brings her running at full speed, but even though she stopped and looked my way, she immediately went back to sniffing. While some might interpret this as being disobedient, I knew that there was something very important to her that had left a scent residue. While I had no way of knowing precisely what it was, I suspected the recent visit of a squirrel or rabbit or opossum. Observing Josie’s intent behavior and looking at the context which she was encircling (the large branch), that became my working theory. I gave her a few more minutes to explore and whistled her in, giving her one of her favorite treats for leaving such an amazing new scented area. I’ll go out to the branch later to see if there’s any animal sign that I can discern.
Consent and Voluntary Participation
Another way to understand our animals’ points of view is to use consent testing. We provide some input–scratching them or showing them a new toy for a few seconds–and then stop or back off and see if they seek more of it or not. This is covered in more detail in our book (VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2017, Animal Assisted Play Therapy), as consent testing is also a useful tool to use during therapy sessions to help enhance client empathy.
Allowing animals the freedom to engage or disengage during therapy sessions provides further insight into how the animal is feeling at that moment. Including animals at liberty, without the use of equipment, ropes or leashes, allows them to come and go as they wish. (It should be noted that some forms of AAI, especially visits to hospitals or schools, might not be suitable for this level of freedom and choice, but it is often quite easy to accomplish this in therapy sessions with appropriately prepared animals.) We might not always know why they choose to end participation–perhaps the tasty grass cannot be resisted or the client moved in a startling manner or many other reasons–but we can watch their body language carefully for clues, consider the environment right before and during the animal’s departure, and come up with some hypotheses. Usually, no matter the reason, we respect it. Voluntary participation is another topic covered in depth in our book.
But Isn’t Therapy for the Client, Not the Animal?
We have sometimes fielded this question in our presentations. Isn’t therapy for the client to benefit, so why would we expend this much effort getting to understand our animals’ points of view and permitting them so much latitude? The short answer comes from our work in Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) where we consider the animals’ well-being as important as the clients’. For us, it’s all about the relationship – how our own relationship with our animals provides a model and a metaphor for our therapeutic relationship with the client, and also the client’s ability to develop and sustain a healthy, reciprocal relationship, first with the therapy animal, and later with peers, family members, and other people.
Any AAPT session revolves around the client’s goals, the animal’s unique personality and preferences, the therapist’s skills and approach, and the environment. When animals make choices to initiate interactions or to go their separate ways in session, it makes the relationship authentic. Clients might be delighted when the animal approaches them voluntarily with interest and eagerness and disappointed when the animal opts out of a particular activity in favor of a nap. Those are the interactions of life, and whatever the animal’s choices, the therapist helps the client understand them and to take respectful action (or inaction). These practices are designed to enhance the animals’ comfort in this work while providing a living microcosm for client adaptation to the vicissitudes of life.
One of the goal areas that benefits from this focus on animals’ points of view is the enhancement of empathy. As therapists we can reflect upon, guide, or reinforce (depending on one’s theoretical orientation) a client’s awareness of the feelings and choices of the animals, help them think about how to show greater understanding of the animal’s needs, and allow them to build mutually beneficial relationships with the animals, including the give-and-take that allows for reciprocal and respectful connection. Because of clients’ interest in working with the animals, they often are eager to treat them well and are willing to learn from the animals themselves.
In AAPT, we first strengthen our own ability to understand the natural behavior and expressions of the species and individuals with whom we work, and we then help our clients learn how acceptance of and accommodation to another sentient being lays the groundwork for healthy relationships with our own species as well. Putting the animals’ needs at the center of our attention alongside those of our clients does not detract from the treatment clients receive. To the contrary, this concern for the animals and giving them a voice and choice enhances treatment by providing clients with authentic experiences within safe, genuine two-way relationships.
Want to learn more?
Read VanFleet & Faa-Thompson (2017), Animal Assisted Play Therapy. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press.
Author: Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC (licensed psychologist, registered play therapist/supervisor, certified dog behavior consultant), co-creator with Tracie Faa-Thompson of the field of Animal Assisted Play Therapy® is shown here with three of her dogs, Josie Patches, Murrie, and Kirrie, all of whom love to play in their own unique styles.
Article and photos © 2020, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, www.iiaapt.org. All rights reserved.