Experiences in Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI): Practice, Research, and Teaching

Patricia Flaherty Fischette

Patricia Flaherty Fischette, PhD, is an Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) researcher and clinical social worker. She works as a clinician supporting young adults with intellectual disabilities and is the Research Fellow for SoulPaws Recovery Project, the only outpatient AAI for individuals struggling with food and body image issues. She is teaching the first-ever class on AAI at the Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research exploring AAI and trauma.

My interest in AAI developed from my experience growing up in a family that always included animals—dogs, rabbits, hamsters, snakes, bearded dragons, and turtles. As I pursued my social work career, the interplay of animals and healing surfaced in many ways. Specifically, in my clinical work with individuals struggling with eating disorders, a client with an eating disorder said the only thing keeping her alive was her dog. Given the theoretical postulations about eating disorders manifesting as an all-consuming relationship (Schaefer, 2009), it led to thoughts about the relational expectations of humans versus animals. Can an animal prompt less relational expectations thereby accessing emotions and affect in a less threatening way but, at the same time, offer the relational unconditionality desired by individuals struggling with eating disorders? This began the conceptual foundation upon which I built my research of AAI and eating disorders.

My research was the first study that investigated the connection between attachment, affect regulation, eating disorders, and AAT. Forty in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with self-identified female adults who were diagnosed with an eating disorder in the last ten years and who used AAT in their eating disorder treatment (75% Canine-Assisted Therapy; 25% Canine and Equine-Assisted Therapy). Eating disorders can be conceptualized as a cluster of vulnerabilities related to affect, attachment, and difficulties in self-regulatory functions (Petrucelli, 2014). Exploration of AAI with eating disorders is an innovative concept connecting their commonality, as both AAI and eating disorders have an impact on affect regulation.

My Background

I received my PhD in social work from Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, and I am a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). Currently, I am an adjunct professor at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and teaching the first-ever class on AAI. The class, AAI and Trauma, is an elective for graduate-level social work students. Additionally, I am the Research-Scholar for SoulPaws Recovery Project, Inc. and facilitator for SoulPaws Animal-Assisted Activity Workshops for individuals struggling with food/ body image issues.

My day-to-day work is extremely varied but always includes thoughts about human-animal interactions. My work generally falls into three domains: researcher on AAI and eating disorders; facilitator of AAI for individuals with eating disorders/food and body issues; and teacher about AAI. In my researcher role, I spend time working on conference presentations to disseminate information about AAI and eating disorders. In addition, I work on publishing my research findings in academic journals. In my facilitator of AAI and eating disorders role, I am spearheading the first SoulPaws Animal-Assisted Activity' Workshops in Philadelphia. In doing so, I have been partnering with AAI organizations, reviewing and updating the SoulPaws workshop curriculum, and facilitating the workshops. In my teacher role, I teach a class on AAI and trauma. This is the first time Bryn Mawr is offering a class on AAI, so the purpose of the class has been an exploration of AAI (theory' and practice). In my role as teacher, I design the course, coordinate speakers for the class, and craft assignments that help students wrestle with current AAI issues (ex: evaluate an AAI intervention).

Rewarding and Challenging Parts of My Job

It has been extremely' rewarding to learn about the ways in which AAI has positively impacted individuals (specifically; individuals who struggled with eating disorders) when other forms of treatments/treatment providers had been ineffective. Through my research and supported by' theories of attach-ment/affect regulation, AAI may provide opportunities for individuals with eating disorders to experience healing. One participant in my research said about AAT, “it’s almost like Neosporin on the wound. It’s just like healing it.”

The biggest challenge with my job has been the ability' to secure research funding for qualitative research in AAI. AAI research requires resilience, determination, and perseverance. Therefore, funding for research may take time, and the need for flexibility (ex: collaborations with other colleagues you did not anticipate) and willingness to promote your research in different way's (ex: sharing my research in a book about HAI careers) are steps in the right direction.

120 Patricia Flaherty Fischette

Current Projects and Future Goals

I am working with the Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research to offer another class on AA1 and expand the current syllabus. In addition, I am looking into offering more SoulPaws workshops and partnering with college counseling centers and/or health centers to offer other animal-assisted activities. My long-term goal is to open a treatment center for individuals with eating disorders where animal-assisted therapy is an integral part of the treatment process and/or develop an AAI program that can be used in eating disorder treatments.


Petrucelli, |. (Ed.). (2014). Body-states: Interpersonal and relational perspectives of the treatment of eating disorders.

Schaefer, J. (2009). Goodbye ed, hello me: Recover from your eating disorder and fall in love with life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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