Why Competencies for Professionals in Animal Assisted Interventions?

by | Mar 26, 2022 | Uncategorized, Play therapy, Animal Behavior, Human-animal bond, Human-animal interventions, Children, families, & animals, Animal welfare, Psychotherapy

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If you’re a professional in mental health, allied health, or education, you’ve probably seen quite a lot written in recent years about competencies needed to conduct Animal Assisted Interventions (AAI) ethically and effectively. The American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association have published their recommendations based on research and committee work of leaders in the field. Dr. Leslie Stewart conducted some seminal research on this topic, which has served as a very useful guide, and I was very pleased to take part as a respondent in that research. In the early 2000s, the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (IIAAPT) created competencies which must be demonstrated by professionals  for full certification in Animal Assisted Play Therapy®.

Perhaps because of the arduous process of getting advanced degrees and becoming licensed to practice, professionals have sometimes viewed these competencies as a chore. Most understand their importance, however, in protecting the public consumers of our services, and in the case of AAIs, also protecting the well-being of the animals we ask to take part in our work.

Competencies typically spell out the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help a clinician or educator conduct interventions in a specialty area in a manner that yields high quality work. They are typically presented as strong recommendations and guidelines for practitioners to acquire and follow. An excellent example is found in Stewart, Chang, Parker, & Grubbs. 2016. Animal-assisted therapy in counseling competencies. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association, Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network: animal-assisted-therapy-competencies-june-2016.pdf (counseling.org)

The competencies put in place by the IIAAPT were immediately adopted in the early 2000s as part of their full certification program, and fine-tuned until the Animal Assisted Play Therapy® International Certification Board became fully functional (for details see https://iiaapt.org/aapt-certification-board-information-on-the-process/ ). The competencies are outlined at https://iiaapt.org/certification/ .

Competencies are not a chore but a roadmap. They highlight the skills and knowledge bases required to work in a specialty area with the highest quality. Because AAIs include sentient beings in the work, there is a need for considerable understanding of the ethology, behavior, and ethics of involving animals in any human pursuits. Unfortunately, the internet is full of examples of animals who have been objectified, taken into very unfamiliar environments, and shown to be highly stressed when involved in AAIs. The well-meaning professionals who display such photos and videos apparently do not see what their animals are communicating. Our free-for-the-asking document, What Therapy Animals Should Look Like  (contact rise@risevanfleet.com to obtain this), highlights these most unfortunate examples as well as better examples of animals who actually enjoy the work they are asked to do.

The competencies needed to include animals responsibly in our work as professionals are considerable. We must continue to maintain the highest quality of professional service to our clients while constantly looking out for the welfare and well-being of the animals who join our work. This is not always easy to do. Not all animals are suitable for this work, and just because one has a lovely companion animal at home does not mean that same animal will enjoy sharing our work. Furthermore, even though many of us believe we understand our animals well, we often do not unless we have followed a course of study followed by continuous and clear observation of them in multiple environments, including during our work. Learning to use peripheral vision, to split attention between clients and animals, and to engage proactive attention to prevent potential conflicts are just a few of the competencies needed to ensure the safety and comfort of all involved. Even for those of us who have lived with animals our entire lives, there is much to learn, and the learning never stops.

While short courses, webinars, and online courses help lay the foundation for such animal-related competencies, far more is needed that can only be obtained through considerable hands-on, species/breed/individual observations and skills practice.

Working well with animals is far more complex, intricate, and nuanced than even I initially believed. Becoming certified in dog behavior and animal ethology over several years helped hone my skills and understanding, and although professional practitioners need not become credentialed in animal behavior, there are many things to learn despite close relationships with animals for decades. The learning never ends, but the good news is that this education is fascinating.

I was reminded of this fact during the past week in the UK. With my co-creator of Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) and co-author of the Maxwell Award-winning book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy, Tracie Faa-Thompson (UK), who knows horses like no one else I’ve ever seen, and our very dear friend, Rachaël Draaisma (Netherlands),  who has a long history of helping others train and build relationship with dogs and known for her superb and internationally acclaimed research-based books, Language Signs and Calming Signals in Horses and Scentwork for Horses, we held a Level 2 AAPT workshop in Northumberland UK.

Participants who were well versed in the values, principles, and practice of AAPT brought their own dogs to the workshop, and we conducted activities that helped them see the very subtle and nuanced behaviors that needed to guide handler (therapist) decision-making for the animals with whom they work. The practice sessions were excellent in helping all of us learn to see the small “tells” that mean our animals are stressed or need more space. While all of us there knew the larger signals that are taught in many introductory courses, the ones learned are rarely included in most basic body language courses. Our animals are  better off when we learn and practice at all times these observations and responses in real life.

Tracie helps Charlie and Madonna get comfortable with the parachute and ready for an activity involving it.


Parker adds some complexity to the activity as Rachaël watches the participating therapist-dog teams. Participants were to decide their dogs’ comfort distance from the horses.


Lucy Llewellyn, a Certified AAPT Instructor and well-practiced in these skills, checks in with Lykke to determine if Lykke’s comfort distance has changed with her age.


Heidi determined the distance that Rolo showed her with his subtle signals from which he felt most comfortable observing the horses.

Our AAPT program was designed specifically for professionals because the work we do with our clients and students is different in a number of ways from the work involved in visiting people in hospitals, care homes, and other venues. The work can be more intense and ongoing, and it can involve many other activities in order to help achieve goals. In many ways it demands more of the therapist and the animals. While a strong understanding of animals is important for all, it becomes especially important with the types of professional relationships we have with our clients and students.

Of course there are many other competencies required for this work, as we detail them in the resources noted above. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know, but having our eyes opened to learning via hands-on work in great depth and breadth is invaluable, not only to ourselves, but to our clients and to the beloved animals we involve in our work. Competences provide the roadmap, and in-depth hands-on training helps build our competence and confidence in putting our work into action in ways that benefit all.
Author Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, CAEBI, is co-founder with Tracie Faa-Thompson of the field of AAPT and president of the IIAAPT. Information about in-person workshops and online courses pertaining to this blogpost can be found at iiaapt.org

Josie Patches, Kirrie, and Murrie with Dr. Risë VanFleet