Animal Assisted Play Therapy

Rise VanFleet

Rise VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, is a licensed psychologist, registered play therapist-supervisor, and certified dog behavior consultant. She is the President of the Family Enhancement and Play Therapy Center in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, and is a co-creator of the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) which provides training and competence-based certification for professionals throughout the world.

I began preparing for new roles in Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) long before I knew that was where I was heading. Forty years ago, while serving as a live-in houseparent in a community mental health residential program when completing my master’s degree, I did my first intervention when one of the residents wanted to set up a fish tank. Later, even though my doctoral focus was on working with children and families, I took courses in ethology and read a great deal about animal behavior simply out of interest. During the first decades of my career, while conducting therapy with children and families in private practice (as a family psychologist and play therapist), setting up a new family program in a hospital, serving as clinical director of a large community mental health center, working with mid-sized manufacturing companies to establish self-managed work teams, and traveling throughout the world conducting play therapy trainings for mental health professionals, I continued my “pleasure reading” of everything I could find—fiction and nonfiction—about dogs and horses. I also took numerous trips to Alaska to photograph Alaskan brown bears in the wild, where I learned more about applied ethology; animal behavior, and bear body language—an important thing to know if you are walking in the woods on bear paths or hiking along salmon streams and can bump into bears at any time! Even so, I had no plans to become involved in HAI, mostly because I was unaware of anyone doing this type of work.

My big shift to systematic HAI work occurred after nearly three decades in the mental health field. I was working with a foster child who had experienced horrific abuse, some questionable foster placements, and two failed adoptions. He did well with play therapy and Filial Therapy (a form of family therapy) with his foster mother, but I knew he still had remaining dilemmas that were difficult for him to work through. I did something I now tell others not to do—I took my very sociable, playful, and well-trained dog, Kirrie, to work with me. I held a session which worked exceptionally well. After this session, however, I realized I had much more to learn. All my prior reading alerted me to my need to develop more competencies. I then attended many animal behavior/training workshops. I volunteered my behavior consultation skills with local dog rescues—one of the best things I did to develop my hands-on skills and apply what I was learning. Eventually I became a certified dog behavior consultant, and I still conduct behavior consults with people and their dogs. Of greatest importance, I have used what I learned to co-develop the field of Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) alongside mental health professional and equine behaviorist Tracie Faa-Thompson of the UK.

AAPT involves the integration of several fields, including psychotherapy, animal behavior, ethology, play therapy, and animal welfare. We operate from a set of principles that preserve the animal’s well-being as well as that of the client. AAPT is appropriate for all ages and can be done with individuals, families, and groups. Practitioners develop many competencies to incorporate into their therapy work, including reading animal body language fluently, using animal-friendly positive training, building strong and reciprocal therapist-animal relationships, and involving animals in novel ways so they always have choices and enjoyable experiences.

My AAPT work has included a part-time private practice in which I conduct AAPT pro boiw, as well as working full-time teaching professionals about AAPT, animal behavior, and more. We developed an independent certification program with rigorous requirements based on demonstrated competencies (see This program is active throughout the world, and there are certified AAPT professionals involving many species in their work, all following the relationship and animal well-being principles at the heart of all we do. My work also entails supervision, writing, course development, teaching course instructors, and organizational development to support and sustain those involved. It’s immensely rewarding. The primary challenges are reaching the many people in our field who remain unaware of animals’ perceptions and experiences in AAI, and helping them recognize and advocate for their animals when they are stressed.

Is There a Personality Type That’s Better Suited to AAPT Work?

I will answer this from both human and animal points of view. For humans, I would say there is not. One must be able to split one’s attention, read body language fluently, think proactively from the animal’s point of view, and simultaneously conduct psychotherapy sessions effectively. That’s a lot, but it can be learned by anyone who is motivated. It takes hard work, but it’s

Animal Assisted Play Therapy 179 well worth it in terms of the relationships one can develop with animals and clients. I think there’s room in the HAI field for nearly everyone!

For animals, it is commonly thought that quiet, docile, obedient animals are the best therapy animals. I disagree! While this is likely true for visitation programs, in our AAPT work, we work with a wide range of animal personalities. Our way of doing so diff ers, though. Instead of expecting the animals to fit into the types of interventions clients need, we engage the animals in work that suits their personalities, energy' levels, and interests. We use a goodness-of-fit model in which we select interventions based on (a) the client goals, (b) the animal’s personality and interests, (c) the therapist’s skills, and (d) the environment at the time. This works beautifully and allows us to involve many different animal personalities.

This is a most rewarding field, but it does take dedication and supervised experience to do well. The good news is that it is so fascinating to learn!

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