About AAT

Photo of Dr Chandler and Rusty

Dr. Cynthia Chandler and Rusty, therapy dog

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?


Dr. Cynthia Chandler

Animal assisted therapy is an activity that promotes positive human-animal interaction. The benefits of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) have been well documented (Burch, 1996; Fine, 2000; and Wilkes, Shalko, and Trahan, 1989). While much has been written on AAT many more controlled research studies are needed to support the case-by-case clinical findings. Even with the absence of sufficient scientific research, AAT has already been incorporated into numerous healthcare professions including nursing, counseling, physical rehabilitation, therapeutic recreation, and speech therapy (Gammonley et al., 1997). It has been shown to be beneficial in a variety of settings, such as, schools, counseling agencies, hospitals, nursing homes, hospice care, developmental disability facilities, juvenile detention centers, and prisons (Delta Society, 1997). The incorporation of animals into a mental health program in the United States goes back as far as 1919 at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. (Burch, 1996). The integration of animal-assisted therapy into clinical psychology was first credited to the child psychologist, Boris Levinson, with his paper published in Mental Hygiene in 1962, “The dog as a ‘co-therapist’” (Levinson, 1962). Levinson discovered he could make significant progress with a disturbed child when his dog, Jingles, attended therapy sessions. He went on to find that many children who were withdrawn and uncommunicative would interact positively with the dog (Levinson, 1969).

AAT and its related modality, animal-assisted activities (AAA), are both experiencing a rise in popularity and are being applied in many settings across the United States. Cindy Ehlers of Eugene, Oregon took her Husky dog, Bear, to visit with students and others traumatized by the 1998 shootings at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon and the violence in 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado (Rea, 2000). Tracy Roberts brings her two Australian Shepherd dogs, Lucy and Dottie, to school to act as teacher’s aides in the fourth and fifth grade classes at the Canterbury Episcopal School in DeSoto, Texas (Tarrant, 2000). Lucy and Dottie are reported to be a comfort to the kids and a welcome relief from the stress of school. Dena Carselowey and her Labrador Retriever, Buggs, are “co-therapist” at Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School in Wichita, Kansas (Associated Press, 1999). Buggs provides unconditional acceptance the moment the student enters the counselor’s office. Often the kids will come in to see the dog and stay a while to talk to the counselor while they pet and play with Buggs. Therapy dogs teams volunteered counseling services through the Red Cross in New York to victims and families impacted by the World Trade Center terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 (Teal, 2002).

It is important to comprehend the difference between animal-assisted activities (AAA) and animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Most people tend to lump both AAA and AAT into one category called animal assisted therapy. However, technically speaking, AAA involves mostly social visits with a therapy animal, whereas AAT strategically incorporates human-animal interactions into a formal therapeutic process.

AAA are goal-directed activities designed to improve patients’ quality of life through utilization of the human/animal bond. Animals and their handlers must be screened and trained. Activities may be therapeutic but are not guided by a credentialed therapist. (Gammonley et al., 1997)

AAA usually involves such tasks as visiting with patients and friendly petting with some playful activity. It may also include education about or related to the animal itself. Compared to AAA, AAT is a more formal human-animal interaction.

AAT utilizes the human/animal bond in goal-directed interventions as an integral part of the treatment process. Working animals and their handlers must be screened, trained, and meet specific criteria. A credentialed therapist, working within the scope of practice of his/her profession, sets therapeutic goals, guides the interaction between patient and animal, measures progress toward meeting therapy goals, and evaluates the process. AAT may be billed to third-party payers the same as any other kind of reimbursable therapy. (Gammonley et al., 1997)

An example of AAT in physical therapy is having the patient walk a dog down a hallway or pet or brush a cat, all activities designed to increase muscle strength and control. One example of AAT in a mental health counseling session could involve a child victim of abuse gently petting and talking to a dog or cat to teach the concept of appropriate touch and gentle relations. The warm and caring attitude of the therapy pet and human therapist combined reinforces the child’s positive behavior.

A therapist can incorporate the animal into whatever professional style of therapy the therapist already enacts. AAT sessions can be integrated into individual or group therapy and with a very wide range of age groups and persons with varying ability.

To learn more about animal assisted therapy or activities click AAT links listed at the beginning of the site.



Associated Press (1999, October, 31). Therapy dogs have time for pupils. Denton Record Chronicle, p. A26.

Burch, M. R. (1996). Volunteering with your pet: How to get involved in animal-assisted therapy. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Delta Society (1997). Animals in institutions. Renton, WA: Author.

Fine, A. H. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Gammonley, J., Howie, A. R., Kirwin, S., Zapf, S. A., Frye, J., Freeman, G., & Stuart-Russell, R. (1997). Animal-assisted therapy: Therapeutic interventions. Renton, WA: Delta Society.

Levinson, B. M. (1962). The dog as co-therapist. Mental Hygiene, 46, 59-65.

Levinson, B. M. (1969). Pet-oriented child psychotherapy. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Rea. J. L. (2000, July 31). Special therapy dogs learn how to heal. The Register-Guard, p. 1 D.

Tarrant, D. (2000, January 21). Teacher’s pets: Lucy and Dottie are top dogs in the classroom. Dallas Morning News, p. 1C.

Teal, L. (2002). Pet Partners help with the healing process. Interactions, 19(4), 3-5.

Wilkes, C. N., Shalko, T. K., & Trahan, M. (1989). Pet therapy: Implications for good health. Health Education, 20, 6-9.