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Canine Assisted
Play Therapy

Animal Assisted therapy is a therapeutic program that uses trained canines in play therapy sessions.
Appropriately-trained therapists and canines engage with children and families primarily through non-directive play therapy, with the goals of improving children’s emotional and developmental health. Animal Assisted Play Therapy® is defined as the incorporation of an animal into a play therapy session to increase the amount of opportunities for tracking behavior and reflecting feelings. The animal serves the role of co-therapist in the session by engaging the therapeutic powers of play. It is a combination of the well established fields of Animal-Assisted Therapy and Play Therapy. Play therapy creates a safe atmosphere where children can express themselves, try new things, learn more about how the world works, learn about social rules and restrictions, and work through their problems. For children, toys are their words and play is their conversation. Research has shown the effectiveness of play therapy as well as the use of animals for treating children with a variety of difficulties.

This program’s use of therapy dogs in play sessions tends to be fairly systematic in nature. The therapy dog attends every session throughout the day as all clients are screened for the appropriateness of the use of a therapy dog through a screening form. The therapy dog serves the role of “co-therapist” in sessions. The therapist introduces the therapy dog to the child at the initial play session. The therapist reads the child a book about play therapy and immediately engages the therapy dog by pretending as though the dog is also involved in the storytelling (in much the same way as using a puppet to talk to the child). The dog shows the child to the playroom after the purpose of play sessions is explained and after the child is introduced to the therapy dog. The child is given a tour of the playroom and is also shown an area known as the “Cozy Corner.” This is an area dedicated to child-animal interaction. Here there are the dog’s toys, a large pillow for the two of them to sit on, stories for the child to read to the dog, and a brush the child can use on the dog. A child is introduced to this in the same way he is introduced to all of the others toys in the fully stocked playroom.

While in the playroom the therapy dog is an active part of the session. The therapist often makes reflective tracking statements to the therapy dog instead of directly to the child. We have found this incorporates another living being into the session and allows the child to better accept the tracking of feelings and behaviors. For example, the therapist may say to the therapy dog, “Johnny is having a hard time deciding what he wants to play with next” or “Johnny seems frustrated with that thing today.” Often the children respond to tracking from the dog more than from the therapist. We also use the value of fantasy in the pet play sessions. We may pretend the therapy dog has a question to ask of the child or has a feeling or emotion to something the child may have said or done in the session. For example, the therapist may say to the child, “Razz wonders what happened to that doll” or “Razz is worried about how difficult school has been for you this week.” This seems to be less threatening to the child and often allows for a response from the child.

We use mostly non-directive strategies but allow the dog to have a voice in the session. What physical contact and activities the dog does with the child is completely up to the child. We do not plan specific activities for them to do although we let them know from the beginning what the dog is able to do with the child. This may include obedience or agility training, playing fetch, petting, talking, reading, or grooming the dog. The children often say the dog is their “best friend” or that they “love the dog.” The dog becomes a part of their therapy and they expect his/her presence at each session. Many children often schedule their appointments on certain days to ensure their “favorite dog” is present.

What Activities are Available?

  • We offer both directive (activities chosen by the therapist) and nondirective (activities chosen by the child) interventions with the canines

  • Children can help in training the dog in both basic agility and obedience commands

  • We can use interventions such as animal images, stories, and metaphors to parallel and aid in understanding he child’s experiences

  • Children can help in grooming and caring for the dog, learning appropriate touch and cues from the dog
    Children can communicate their experiences and feelings to the dog by sharing stories or drawing pictures for, with or about the dog

  • The dog can be part of the child’s play session by acting as a “co-therapist” .

Benefits of Animal Assisted Play Therapy®

  • Helps establish rapport quickly, capitalizing on the natural interest that children have in animals

  • Improves social skills and confidence levels of children while also decreasing their aggressive and maladaptive behaviors

  • Enhances a child’s self-esteem and promotes the expression of feelings

  • Fosters healthy attachment relationships, not only with the dog, but also with people

  • Develops children’s empathy, sharing, and care-giving capabilities

  • Helps children share traumatic experiences in an emotionally safe way

  • Provides an opportunity to help children overcome a fear of dogs

  • Offers nurturance through a presentation of unconditional acceptance and interaction

  • Improves cooperation and problem-solving ability

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