The Child and the Animal and the Potential Space Between:
A Comparison of Animal-Assisted Education and Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy

Tamar Axelrad Levi and Dr. Michal Motro

Translated by Dr. Michal Motro and Maggie O’Haire

The David Yellin Academic College of Education

The Institute for Teacher-Training Specializing in Animal-Assisted Therapy


 Presented as a poster at the convention:

"Psychotherapeutic Interventions in the Developing Space

Between Client and Animal" – December 14, 2009

The David Yellin Academic College of Education

The child enters each session with a real, everyday world and an inner, more personal world. The animal enters each session with a real, everyday world in the most concrete form – including hunger, secretions, sexuality, aggression, parenting, illness and potential death or separation. The animal reacts to the environment and its changes in ways that are not always predictable.



Through the intervention with the therapist, a protected space develops between the child and the animal. This space enables personal, emotional and cognitive development for the child. It creates an atmosphere in which the child feels safe and free to express himself.

Educational Intervention


focuses on the real,

everyday world of the child.

Therapeutic Intervention


focuses on the inner world

of the child.

1. Educational interventions involve putting together the environment of the child and the environment of the animal.

1. Therapeutic interventions combine the inner world of the child and the outer world of the animal in its environment.

2. The child learns about the animal life cycle, which closely resembles the human life cycle but is also distant.

2. The child encounters experiences that are familiar to him from another context, usually a human context, both consciously and unconsciously.

3. The animal helps to channel motivated and enthusiastic learning. The child does things for the animal that have personal meaning. By engaging in practical and relevant activities, the child acquires life skills and knowledge.

3. The animal becomes a connection to the child’s inner world.

4. The child brings personal life experiences to all activities with the animals. These experiences shape the questions and subjects the child will choose to work on. The lessons will therefore be learned in a relevant context, in order to fulfill the needs of the animal in a straightforward and concrete way and of the child in a deeper sense.

4. The child brings forth experiences from his inner world to the animals. These can include past experiences, fantasies, wishes, imagination and forbidden urges. They are transferred onto the animal in a substantial and existential way.


5. In these ways, the educational therapist helps the child to build a specialized set of knowledge that is meaningful for her. This format fits the model of constructivist learning.


5. The therapist helps the child to build a personal narrative in which he can express a variety of voices from his inner world. The child may identify, ignore or deny the animal. He may feel angry, disgusted or drawn to the animal, both physically and emotionally. He may want to do something for the animal, but not with the animal. He may want to speak about the animal from a distance, or be with the animal without speaking.

6. While taking care of and working with the animal, the child acquires important skills such as improved time management and spatial organization.   The child learns new vocabulary, concepts, measurement techniques, and various methods of documentation and recording. The child has the chance to take care of another creature that is weaker than and dependent on him. He learns to control his impulses and wait his turn, to develop social skills, empathy, and moral values and to experience success and feelings of competence.

6. While taking care of the animal, a dialogue develops—both on a personal level for the child and on a relational level with the therapist. The dialogue enables the child to feel safe and to trust the therapist. It enhances his self-esteem, expands his repertoire of experiences, draws to the surface personal issues that may be difficult or complex, and encourages creativity and healing. It begins to mend things that are difficult for him and brings up issues that can be discussed. The therapist is an integral part of the process but the child leads the dialogue and sets the pace. This dynamic allows for creativity and healing through a sense of safety in which the child is in charge of the process.




Educational Intervention

The Animal

Therapeutic Intervention

* Recognizing and differentiating between foods by their names, textures, different qualities, colors, and freshness.

*Gaining experience in the kitchen with kitchen tools (e.g., knives, spoons, bowls, cutting boards), washing dishes, and putting things in their correct place after activities.

* Knowing the special needs of every animal (e.g., what they should and should not eat).

* Noting how the animal reacts to the food – Did she eat that? How much? How did she eat, with her hands or not?

* Learning how to weigh the animal and tracking whether it is gaining or losing weight, and in some cases weighing the food if the animal is on a diet.

* Documenting and reporting feeding practices and schedules to other people working with the animals.

The child learns about feeding from a relevant need of the animal.   The child understands the rationality and purpose of the tasks rather than blindly following instructions.   Feeding activities encourage the child to develop empathy and responsibility. They provide positive experiences that give the child a sense of empowerment.


The animal acts in a manner that fulfills its needs and desires in the moment.

Possible scenarios:

* The animal may approach and eat the food or ignore and not eat it.

* The animal may prefer one food to another.

* The animal may eat the food in its original placement or take it to another place such as a shelter to eat or store it there.

* If the animal is in the company of other animals, it may take the food or others may take its food.

The child chooses how and what to feed the animal (e.g., whether the food cut or given as a whole).

Observations are made about the child’s behavior:

*What does she choose to feed the animal? How does she feed the animal (e.g., does she spread it all over or make a small pile)?

* What does the child avoid when she prepares the food?

* How does the child feed the animal? Does she hide the food or put it in the animals face?

*What might be the meaning of this behavior? What can be learned about the child’s inner, emotional world from this?


Educational Intervention

The Animal

Therapeutic Intervention

* Learning to pay attention to and to determine the state of the cage, bedding, food dishes, and water container – whether they should be cleaned, if the bedding should be changed, where to put the dirty bedding, where to obtain the clean bedding, which kind of bedding, how much of it and where to put the animal while cleaning.

* Understanding how the animal may react and behave when it is put back into a home that is a bit different than before.

* Learning which substances and materials work best and which do not work for bedding and cleaning, understanding the different features and characteristics of different materials.

* Reporting and documenting cleaning practices and schedules for others working with the animals.

The child develops empathy for the animal and a sense of responsibility for its care.   Experiences of success bring empowerment.


* The animal makes secretions.

* Excess food in the cage begins to rot.

* Bedding in the cage must be changed from time to time.

* Care must be taken to make sure the cage stays familiar to the animal, even after cleaning or changing bedding.

Observations are made about how the child cleans and speaks about cleaning

* Who is the one who is making things dirty?

* Is it OK to be angry with the one who is making the mess?

* Who is cleaning and who in the fantasy of the child is responsible for the cleaning?

* Is it possible to say that it is difficult to clean?

* What is the meaning of the child’s behavior in this area? What might this tell us about the child’s inner, emotional world?


Educational Intervention

The Animal

Therapeutic Intervention

* Searching for information through various sources about the animal’s life history and how to care for this type of animal.

*Learning the differences between males and females – What is estrus? What are the signs that the animal is in estrus?

* Discussion of the animal’s situation and the conditions for reproduction before deciding to bring a male and female together.

* Observing mating.

* Weighing and monitoring behavioral changes in the pregnant animal, while remaining empathetic to its needs and desires.

* Respecting the animal’s sensitivities (e.g. waiting until the pups are in the right developmental stage before touching them) which requires the child to control urges and impulses

* Reporting and documenting the reproductive process.

* The child develops empathy and responsibility, and the exciting experiences bring empowerment. Activities having to do with reproduction also bring up sexual and parental issues, which can be very difficult to teach and discuss in a human context.


* The hormonal and behavioral stage of the animal is not always clear to us.

* There may be a gap between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.

* Mating does not always take place when the child would like it to.

* Pregnancy will not always go as expected.

* The babies are not always born.

* Sometimes not all of the babies survive and develop.

* The parental behavior of the animal does not always mirror what would be expected from human parental behavior.

Observations are made about how the child relates to reproductive issues and how he experiences and talks about his own birth.

* Is it a happy, sad, or hurtful event?

* Who is the caregiver – the mother, father or both? Which tasks does each parent taken on?

* Who in the extended family helps out and what are their relations with the newborn animal?

* Do the new pups feel safe? What helps or prevents them from feeling safe?

* How do you know when they are hungry? Who knows this – the mother, father or nobody?

* Are all of the pups loved in the same way, the same amount and to the same extent?

* What represents the way the child sees the family of the animal in his internal, emotional world?


Touch includes getting the animal out of the cage,

as well as carrying, hugging, petting,

grooming, and brushing it.

Educational Intervention

The Animal

Therapeutic Intervention

* Determining the manner in which the animal feels most comfortable with touch, such as the style and pressure.

* Learning to distinguish situations that are not conducive to touch by considering the animal’s lifestyle (e.g., not disturbing the animal while eating, not touching pups until they have reached a suitable developmental stage) which requires restraint and controlling of urges.

* Studying differences in the animal’s coat (e.g., fur structure or feathers).

* Learning to weigh the animal and feeling differences in the animal’s weight – whether it is gaining or loosing weight.

* Reporting and documenting any physical changes of the animal.

Through the real and concrete needs of the animal, the child learns to respect the animal’s space and desires. The child develops empathy and a sense of responsibility that empowers her.

Possible scenarios:

* The animal enjoys being touched and consents.

* The animal tries to avoid being touched with different levels of persistence, from indifference to moving away to biting.

* The animal runs away from the child and then returns to be touched.

Observations are made about the mode of touch with the animal and its characteristics:

* Is it a mutually pleasant touch or is it hard on the animal?

* What parts of the hand or body is the child using to touch the animal?

* What are the frequency, speed and persistence of the touch?

* Is the touch correlated with certain issues? For example, when the child or therapist speaks about certain topics, does the touch change in any way?

* Is the child’s touch correlated with the animal’s behavior or reactions? For example if the animal wants to leave but the child keeps stroking it, does the child pay attention to the animal’s signals? Is the child in tune with and cautious about the animal’s feelings in the moment?

* What can be learned from the child’s behavior and the animal’s reaction about the child’s inner, emotional world?



Educational Intervention

The Animal

Therapeutic Intervention

* Diagnosis of medical problems through symptoms such as wounds, weight loss, changes in secretions and changes in body cover such as thinning fur.

* Approaching a veterinarian and discussing beforehand what to explain about the symptoms and their meaning for the life expectancy and welfare of the animal.

* Taking care of the animal and treating it according to the instructions of the veterinarian.

* Following up with the veterinarian regularly.

* Documenting and reporting the symptoms and any changes to the animal’s status.

* If the animal passes away, preparing a burial ceremony and an album or Powerpoint presentation that compiles pictures, drawings and words that describe memories of the animal.

The child learns the values and morals of taking care of someone who is weak, suffering and dependent on outside care. If the animal dies, it provides an opportunity to think and talk about issues of death and separation. The child is able to express and work through these feelings in regards to a concrete loss. He experiences coping with agony and grief on a smaller scale than what is often experienced at the loss of a human. He is empowered by overcoming the distressing experience.


* The animal grows old, wounded, sick or experiences sudden death.

* The child and therapist are not always able to detect the problem and take care of it in time.

* Most of the animals the child works with have a short lifespan.

* Each animal zoo has a small cemetery.

* The child has the opportunity to help bury the animal, witness the burial or be absent during the burial and visit the grave afterward.

* The child has the opportunity to write things for or about the animal, to raise issues related to separation and loss, and to work through former experiences of loss to the extent that the child is capable.

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