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

Two Pawsitivity staff members will be taking a seminar on Animal Assisted Play Therapy to help us work with children with autism and other disorders. Here are some notes from a book we are studying.

Horse training:

  • 95% of horses are trained in the traditional way (which is based on aversion or even pain)
  • "The horses are dead behind the eyes."
  • Clicker training (positive reinforcement training) is rarer but has amazing results.

Dog training:

  • Only 40% of training is the traditional way (which is based on aversion or even pain)
  • Clicker training (positive reinforcement training) has amazing results.


  • Some people like to use a graveled-area with horses so they don't graze. Note that there is a disadvantage to this method because the horses will show fewer natural behaviors.

Flawed ideas:

  • Dominance theory of dogs (ala Cesar Milan)
  • Natural horsemanship for horses (same thing)

Dog stress signals (many of these signals are constantly changing so they are easy to miss):

  • Head:
    • Head-turning
    • Pulling head down
  • Ears:
    • Ears down
  • Mouth:
    • Lip-licking
    • Tense muscles around lips
    • Yawning
    • Panting
    • Closing the mouth (both panting and closing the mouth sometimes doesn't mean stress)
  • Eyes:
    • Showing whites of eyes
    • Looking at you out of the corner of their eye
    • Tense muscles on forehead
  • Body:
    • Freezing (whole body tense)
    • Shaking body (as if shaking off water)
  • Pacing
  • Turning body away (or walking away)

Horse stress-signals (even more constantly changing than dogs, so they are easy to miss, often several right in a row):

  • Head:
    • Head-bobbing
    • Head-shaking
  • Ears:
    • Ears back (ears forward is curiosity)
    • Ears flicking back and forth
    • One ear forward and one ear back
  •  Mouth:
    • Tense mouth
    • Constant lip-licking 
    • Constant chewing
    • Grinding teeth
    • Panting
  • Nose:
    • Flared nostrils
    • Tense nostrils
  • Eyes:
    • Eyes partially open and muscles at the top of the eye tense (a bit like our furrowed brow)
  •  Tail
    • Tail-swishing
    • High head carriage with tail pressed down
  • Feet:
    • Pawing
  • Freezing
  • Constant movement
  • Sweating
  • The frequent dropping of manure
  • Lack of interest
  • Listlessness

Note: Extreme horse stress signals:

  • Stereotypical behaviors:
    • Weaving 
    • Box=walking
    • Crib-biting
    • Wind-sucking
  • Kicking
  • Self-mutilation
  • Aggression to humans
  • Bolting


Horse example:

  • The horse is overly playful and knocks down the poles that the child has just set up. Use this event as an opportunity for each child to deal with frustration (and also, this teaches empathy for when the child ruin's someone else's work).
  • Fluidly walk along the horse's shoulder and they will follow. If you use jerky-motions, the horse will step away.

Dog example:

  • Bend as if to pet the dog's neck. Notice the dog's ears lower a tiny bit (they don't like it). It's like reading micro-expressions in people.
  • Teach child not to hug a dog.