Animal Assisted Psychotherapy | Lola The Rescued Cat
Monday, October 3, 2016

Animal Assisted Psychotherapy

One day as I was browsing through Instagram I came across the profile for @julie.wilson.indigo. I was intrigued to read that Julie Wilson is a psychologist who utilizes Animal Assisted Psychotherapy (AAP).  As a mental health professional and an animal lover I was interested to learn more about Julie’s work so I reached out to her. Julie graciously agreed to be interviewed for my blog and explain more about this wonderful approach. 

animal assisted psychotherapy|julie wilson
Julie and one of her beautiful horses.

DW: Can you tell me what Animal Assisted Psychotherapy is? 
JW: I like to think of AAP as the provision of psychological services alongside animals and simply, their role is to be my co-therapist, a guide or a resource. 
DW: How long have you been doing AAP? 
JW: I made a decision three years ago to purchase a cottage to base my practice, so that I could work with my therapy dog Misti-Rose. I had been working out of consulting rooms, and although I could have taken her to work with me, it was more practical and better for her that she be able to go outside when she needed to, and that if she really wanted to have a day off from therapy, she could go into her own space to relax. 

So I bought a lovey Cottage in a leafy suburb, with a great garden and a pond – a place where people could feel grounded in nature. 

Over the last year I have decided to introduce working with horses to the people I work with, and Ex Defence Personnel and their families.

Animal assisted psychotherapy|whippet
Misti Rose, Therapy Dog. Misti Rose is a three year old Whippet who graduated from Dog Therapy Training. 

DW: What made you interested in doing AAP?
JW: Whenever I have been at a crisis in my life, I’ve always turned to the animals and I feel instantly calm and comforted. If this works for me……wouldn’t it be the same for others? Particularly those people who are isolated and disconnected from family, friends and their community. 

DW: Is special certification required in Australia? 
JW: The involvement of animals working in a healing capacity with people has become very popular of late, and it is important to recognize that there is difference between animal assisted activities and animal assisted education. Animal Assisted Psychotherapy involves a Psychologist and animal in a therapeutic context with the goal of promoting wellbeing. 
In Australia, there isn’t any specific certification at this time to regulate AAP, although there is a lot of research being conducted to provide a standardized foundation. 

DW: What does the animal do during the session?
JW: Misti greets people at the door, and accompanies them into the counselling room. She usually stays with them until they sit in the chair, gently leaning up towards them and sniffing, asking for a pat and a greeting. She helps people to settle into the session, she won’t leave them until they settle and respond, and then she will leave them to sit on her own chair – this is another ice breaker as we have a chuckle while watching her trying to flip a cushion into position so that she can curl up on it and fall asleep. If a young person comes in with a parent, Misti usually tries to hop up on their lap or snuggle in behind them if they are okay with it. 

When people become distressed, or if there is conflict, Misti will usually hop down and go to them for reassurance and comfort. This is useful opportunity to address the impact of conflict, or to address how people self soothe or regulate emotions. 

Some dogs can have more of an active role such as retrieving balls or being taught tricks, while others are happy to sit and be cuddled and groomed. Misti will sleep through a session as sleeping is what sighthounds excel at, and interestingly, my clients report that they feel calm in response to her relaxed state.

In the past I’ve observed other animals such as chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, lizards, horses and cats. Some can be handled, while for others it can be wonderful to sit and observe behaviours and communication styles. For example I’ve observed the behaviour of horses within a herd establishing a pecking order during feed times, or chickens within a brood as they interact and explore a new object. These observations can be very useful in working with people to explore how humans behave and communicate, and in turn provide a context to explore what is going on for them. It’s a wonderful way of explaining bullying behaviours with young people, and conflict resolution with families and couples. 

animal assisted psychotherapy
Julies beautiful horses
My horses will have a very different role to Misti, as it will be important in the initial session for people who have not been around horses and ponies to observe at a distance, learn how to approach a build a relationship, before moving on to grooming and ground work. 
We can learn a lot about life, by watching how animals communicate and interact within each other in their environment. 

DW: What can be addressed with AAP?
JW: Oh this list is long, and I will probably only cover some of the aspects in relation to my work. 
Helping build a therapeutic relationship
Self esteem
Conflict resolution
Emotional regulation 
Self-soothing strategies
Transition difficulties 

DW: Is AAP helpful with grief counseling over the loss of a pet? 
JW: Absolutely. It can provide an opportunity for people to relate to another animal, or provide a context to tell the life story of their pet, and it can also be a place to have their feelings validated. 

DW: What are the benefits of AAP?  
JW: Evidence shows that the animal-human bond can helps to 
Reduce anxiety and arousal
Promote cognitive and behavioural change
Enhance social interactions
Formulate attachments
Acceptance of personal agency and responsibility

DW: Do the animals need to be specially trained? 
JW: Misti has undertaken specialist training which focused on delivering AAP, with a strong foundation of obedience skills as it is important that the dog that you are working with can feel confident in any situation that you are both in. 

DW: What attributes make for a great therapy animal?
JW: Temperament is number one. I need to be able to trust that Misti is able to be in a therapeutic space, get along with new and different people and trust that I will look after everyone’s wellbeing.

DW: Do any special protections need to be put in place for the animal or the client during the session? 
JW: All of the people I work with are introduced to the option of AAP and working with Misti in their initial session, and they are offered a chance to meet with her before the session. The only time that I will not offer the option of AAP is for people who have a history of animal abuse.

In the session, I will be very aware of any signs of stress in both the person and Misti. At any time, people can choose for Misti to leave the session (no one has ever requested this) and Misti  can also leave the room when she asks. I will let her out and offer the option of returning or not – it’s an open door. Mostly she returns to her cushion, unless it’s a particularly sunny day, and then she is known to sunbake.  

In sessions where there has been loud conflict, Misti has asked to go out and while I have been letting her out, I have asked how other people, children or pets respond when conflict such as this arises at home?

Animal Assisted Psychotherapy
Julie's chickens
DW: Do you use your own animals? 
JW: Yes, I choose only to work with the animals that I am bonded to and have an awareness of how they feeling. I believe that we work better together as we are always enhancing our bond inside, and outside of work.

DW: Does the animal benefit from the session? 
JW: Misti loves to come into work. I think that it gives her a job, and she is happiest when she is around people. 

DW: Is there anything else that would be helpful for people to know? 
JW: Hope is really important to our survival. It makes us reach deep inside ourselves and persevere through incredibly tough times. When we feel like we have lost everything and life becomes too hard, hope can be found in unexpected places…. such as the relationship that we can make with animals. 

DW: Thanks, Julie, that is beautiful, and I couldn’t agree more. 

Julie Wilson is a Psychologist, Family Therapist and a Therapy Dog Handler based in Nunawading, Victoria in Australia. She practices therapeutic approach that is both holistic and practical, to promote wellbeing and empowerment. You can reach her through Facebook, Instagram or her website

What do you think about Animal Assisted Psychotherapy? 

Would you like to comment?

  1. We kitties and other critters are so intuitive on a level that most humans can't quite get. I hope more psychotherapists learn how to use animals in their practice - my human has heard SO many stories about the good they do!

  2. What a great idea! Animals relax humans in ways that nothing else does, especially in tense situations, so this makes really good sense.

  3. This is amazing. There's a social work program with a special focus on animal assisted therapy Master's Program at the University of Denver. If there was a similar program in the Chicago area, I think I would do it.

    My mom was a therapist and in the final years of practicing she had a home office. Every once in awhile our dog Brutus would walk in and she always felt he helped her clients as much as she did.

  4. This is quite interesting and I can see where it would be beneficial. I would love to read about some of her work that was specifically geared towards cats. It is quite compelling though, what a wonderful idea! catchatwithcarenandcody

  5. Animals can help in some situations better than words. We think animals are great therapy assistants. Purrs

  6. How very, very interestin'! With a little encouragement and trainin', we animals can do such wonderful things. purrs


  7. This is so fantastic! Animals are the greatest healers I've ever known so I can definitely see where this would be successful.

  8. Great interview. I wish there was someone near me that did this. My biggest problem with my therapist is he has never had a pet and doesn't see how important they are, someone like this clearly does.

  9. How interesting! We know animals can be great healers to humans in so many ways.

  10. This is wonderful. I enjoyed reading this interview.

  11. Very inneresting post. I like to be a biter rather then a healer though.

  12. Anyone that's experienced trauma knows how grounding it is to focus on one of the senses (like touch in petting an animal). In general though, every eating disorder treatment program I've researched use animals in some way ... as a stress reliever (a therapy animal), a chance to connect (for people who've been hurt by humans, it's easier to connect to an animal as a bridge), and even to teach responsibility and life skills (in caring for the animals). Of course, for me, I'm alive solely because of Bear. He always makes me laugh - breaking tension. Petting him grounds me. His love and connecting with him is "safer" than connecting with other people. And most recently, when I've been having thrashing violent nightmares, he's been laying on my body until I calm down (I don't actually feel comfortable with this because I'd never forgive myself if in my flailing and thrashing I hurt him). Animals are amazing - they really tune in to nonverbal and emotional cues and seem to naturally sense what's required in a situation.

  13. We knew that therapy with horses was commonly used to treat PTSD. It is interesting to learn that animal therapy is useful for many other conditions as well!

  14. Brilliant Interview. Another one for me to schedule like mad on Twitter!

    This is such a great piece and so encouraging. If I had troubles a dog or cat would certainly help ease tension and ease any stress.

  15. Thank you Dawn for sharing this, looking at people's response shows that this is not surprising to people who love animals, and feel rescued by them. I feel so honoured to be working with my animal guides

  16. Very nice post. I enjoyed reading it!!! Animals can be such a good healers and help humans anytime in so many ways. Amazing!!!

  17. I am so glad to meet you. And I enjoyed the blog. I have always felt than companion animals are good for their people in many ways. Mine always have been.


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