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The Study

Play Therapy on Children with Anxiety Disorders
(Thompson, Mustaine, & Weaver, 2008)

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to present a model for combining animal-assisted therapy and play therapy as well as providing data on its effect on a child’s response to play therapy. In canvassing the literature, it was apparent that few studies exist on using AAT in psychotherapy with children and no studies exist on its integration into non-directive play therapy. This study provided the first empirical investigation into the combination of these interventions.

Research Questions

The main research questions for this study were:

(1) Does play therapy work with children who have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, and (2) Does the presence of a therapy dog change the session characteristics and effectiveness of play therapy?


A final study sample included eight Caucasian clients (three male and five female) from a small private therapy
practice in rural Georgia. Inclusion criteria included meeting the eligibility requirements for AAPT (Appendix C), being between 6 to 8 years of age, having a diagnosable anxiety disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), the absence of any psychotic symptoms, the absence of psychotropic medications, and no history of prior psychiatric treatment.



Methods combined quantitative and qualitative data collection to examine differences in children’s behavior in the presence/absence of a certified therapy dog (ABAB design). Individual non-directive play sessions occurred weekly for 45 minutes across 16 weeks. Quantitative data collected with the Play Therapy Session Summary (PTSS) yielded an overall total behavior score based on the frequency of positive behaviors (participation in play, engagement in fantasy play, attention to task, response
to tracking, positive affect, positive vocalizations, adherence to limits) and negative behaviors (play disruptions, distractibility, negative affect, resistance to tracking, negative vocalizations, breaking of limits, aggression) per session. Qualitative data were therapist-generated (MT) narratives. The study lasted for 6 months and captured 12 sessions with 5 participants and 16
sessions with 3 participants.



Results of the study showed that the presence of the therapy dog had a significant impact on a child’s response to play therapy. In the presence of the dog, children in the study showed an improvement in mood and affect, an increased ability to engage in thematic play, and more readily established rapport. They also exhibited a decrease in aggressive behavior and play disruptions. Another interesting finding was when children with PTSD disclosed their abuse for the first time it was always in the presence of the therapy dog. Seven of the 8 children showed a clear differentiation between more positive and less negative behavior in the presence of the dog, suggesting that the therapy dog was associated with more organized behavior in anxious children. It is recommended that treatment professionals in both the AAT and PT fields consider AAPT as an effective intervention for children with anxiety disorders, especially PTSD.

Here is a link to the full article published in the ACA’s Vistas Journal:  ACA Vistas Article 18 Thompson

VanFleet has conducted a qualitative/survey study of play therapists who use animals in their work. Full results from 83 participants in this 2006-2008 study are now available at Pets in Play Therapy Preliminary Study Results.

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