Notes on book "Animal Assisted Play Therapy," Part 1 of 2

AAPT book

Some Pawsitivity staff are taking a week-long class on Animal Assisted Play Therapy in late 2021 to help us work with people with disabilities, including psychiatric disabilities. Here are notes from one of the textbooks.

2 methods of AAPT (Animal Assisted Play Therapy):

  • Directive - teaching skills or addressing problems. Always goal-directed.
  • Non-directive (unlike AAT/Animal Assisted Therapy, which is always goal-directed)


  • Definition of AAPT is on page 17: "
    • The integrated involvement of animals in the context of play therapy, in which appropriately-trained therapists and animals engage with children and families primarily in play interventions aimed at improving the child’s psychosocial health AND the animal’s well-being. Play and playfulness are essential ingredients of the interactions and the relationship.” 
  • T.A.P. - Turn About Pegasus horse therapy
  • E.A.G.A.L.A. - Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association
  • Biophilia - People love nature and animals


  • One theory of addiction is that it is self-medication.


  • Dogs and people get oxytocin when looking at each other.
  • Learning happens best if there is an authentic relationship.

Benefits of play:

  • Reduces stress
  • Encourages problem-solving
  • Group play human-human relationships

Goals for the therapist and child:

  • Gets children talking (or at least, communicating)
  • A therapist can model specific behaviors (and work on specific problems)
    • Build better attention
    • Reduce anxiety
    • Learn how to ask for help
    • Learn how to "read" people (by reading animals)
  • Is a reward for good behavior
  • Builds trust and rapport
  • Encourages the sharing of feelings
  • Building confidence (and self-efficacy)
    • Learn animal welfare
    • Learn with animal handling
    • Learn reward-based training
  • Building social skills (and relationship skills)
    • Learn how to be reciprocal
    • Learn who to trust
    • Learn how to trust
    • Learn how to adjust to another's needs (while still getting one's needs met)
  • Build empathy
  • Learn self-regulation

Why are dogs good at this work?

  • Social (unlike a lot of cats?)
  • Active
  • Playful
  • Accepting (Dogs are non-judgemental, maybe not like cats?)
  • In the present, the here-and-now
  • People like dogs (unlike rats)
  • Trainable (unlike cats)
  • Dogs show empathy (perhaps cats, rodents, birds, aren't as much?)
  • Dogs like physical contact (rodents and birds might not like physical contact as much?)
  • Adaptive
  • Dogs have similar problems
    • Hyperactive
    • Misbehaving
    • Anxiety
    • Shyness
    • Impulse-control problems

Why are horses good at this work? Unlike dogs, horses are more:

  • Sensitive (they are prey-animals). Need gentleness.
  • Really big (helps people gain confidence)
  • Need a lot of physical work
  • Rural

AAPT competencies:

  • Therapy skills (including ethics, and play therapy)
  • Animal skills:
    • Body language
    • Animal handling (positive)
    • Training
      • Operant conditioning
      • Positive reinforcement
  • Client-animal interactions
  • Ability to split attention

What kind of dog or horse?

  • Dog breed: Often Labs or Goldens
  • Horse breed: Often Arabian

Dog characteristics:

  • Incredibly well-socialized to all people, animals, environments, and stimuli
  • Food-driven (to be easy to train)


  • Lure-reward
  • Marker training
    • With food
    • With activity (aka Premack Principle)
  • Marker training with shaping
  • Marker training with capturing

Dog examples:

  • Overly-rigid? Teach the girl to teach the dog to lie on a beanbag chair. The unpredictability of the task teaches her empathy. Girl learns that a teaching plan must be flexible.
  • Meltdowns when a child loses? Play tug-of-war with the dog, and then he is okay with losing (he even often pretends to lose so the dog can have the toy).
  • Teach the dog to go through a hoop.
  • Too much licking? Target hand.
  • Attachment difficulties in the child? Play hide-and-seek with the dog.
  • Play "Disaster Recovery" by hiding treats, then using the leashed dog to find them.
  • Play "K-9 Drug Dog" the same way.

Horse examples:

  • Children don't trust their formerly drug-addicted parents. Play the "Temptation" game by setting up an "alley" poles and putting buckets of food in the "alley." Attach two ropes to the horse's collar, one for the child and one for the adult. Walk the horse down the alley past the temptations. Personally, I don't like this game because you have to use ropes to keep the horse from eating.
  • When the child learns to put on a horse-collar (extremely difficult), the parents learn not to help.
  • A boy blindfolds his mother, then verbally guides her and the horse through an obstacle course.