Roles of Animals in AAP

Roles of Animals in AAP 

This is a working draft of ideas put forth in a meeting of animal-assisted psychotherapists in Israel who were interested in defining an animal's unique contribution to psychotherapy. There is some repetition throughout the paper since the subjects cited are not mutually exclusive and are artificially separated. We see this as a work-in-progress and hope it will be used to stimulate the academic exchange of ideas, theoretical writing, and research, in order to further the academic understanding, as well as the clinical use, of Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy throughout the world. Please reference this document if you use our ideas in academic settings and/or writing. We would enjoy any comments, thoughts and additions you may have to what we have written here.


In Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy, as in other types of psychotherapy, the main therapy tool is the therapist and the therapy connection. An animal serves as a therapy aid with unique therapeutic qualities, and therefore has, in and of itself, therapeutic value.

Following is a list of various roles animals fulfill in psychotherapy:

* Assessment Value – In the meeting between the client and animals and his/her reaction to them, there are various aspects of great worth that aid in the collection of evaluative information:

- Characteristics of the client'sfunctioning with and vs. the animals and in the area surrounding them;

- Characteristics of the connection the client has with the animals, as well as with other participants in the therapy situation (therapist, family, group) as participants in relating to the animals;

- Projection of emotions on to animals;

- The client's history with animals.

In contemplating these aspects, it is possible to discover important information concerning the inner world and the characteristics of the objects relations of the client in a quick, indirect and non-threatening way.

* Object of Projection – Animals enable the client to touch upon, from a safe distance, complex content, such as aggression, sexuality, parent-child relations, sickness, death, threatening emotions, that in other circumstances would remain unapproachable. Animals serve as objects of projection in that:

-Animals are similar to humans yet at the same time different;

- Animals have characteristics unique to them (smell, sounds, appearance), as well as vitality and independent activity.

Thus, animals enable the projection/externalization of representations of parts of self and of objects, leading to remembering/repeating/working through, in turn leading to a healthier organization of the self.

* Social and Emotional Bridge in the Client-Therapist Relationship – Animals serve as a facilitating factor, or a bridge, in the connection between the client and the therapist, between the client and others (group, other therapists, parents, etc.), between the client and him/herself (in terms of emotions, projections/externalized representations).

- Animals initiate connections and enable the client to create social connections, without giving up the defense mechanism of "not needing anyone".

- Animals enable direct, basic connection (of a pre-verbal nature), the focus being on the animal in the "here and now" (reality centered). This situation may enable the creation of a relationship within the therapy setting without the threatening intimacy of direct therapist-client contact.

- The client has the opportunity of feeling more competent in the therapist's eyes when showing ability to take care of the animals.

- The nature of the relationship between the animal and client often fosters a feeling in the client of being unconditional accepted (only to the degree that the animal feels safe and protected). Animals usually give additional chances if the client makes social mistakes with them.

- The presence of animals may allow for the establishment of trust by the client in the therapist in that the client observes the beneficent behavior by the therapist towards the animal.

Clients that are avoidant or wary of relationships because of harmful relationships in the past, or that feel threatened by accepting the fact that they need help, will be more likely to be willing to experience a secure relationship, this time with an animal. Such a safe relationship may serve as an opening for, or a bridge to, a relationship with the human therapist who is connected with the animal.

* Animal as Mediator or Agent – Interactions with animals may facilitate the client's sharing with the therapist his/her inner world, expression of repressed or forbidden emotions and thoughts, and finding ways to connect up with those in his/her environment. The nature of this mediation may be dependent on the unique qualities of the individual animal's characteristics, but also is dependent on the client's individual and personal perceptions of the animal. This may enable progress in emotional and social development and functioning, as well as internalization of understanding of emotional and functional change.

* Non-Verbal Communication – Animals make a unique contribution in that they enable and even require the use of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal channels of communication are meaningful for clients belonging to populations suffering from a variety of difficulties, especially those who have varying levels of verbal difficulties due to organic, developmental or emotional problems.

* Touch – Touch is a natural part of communication with animals. Thus, touch is legitimized within the therapy setting without the emotional complications of human touch. This may be a significant contribution to the therapy process.

- Touch with an animal contributes greatly to relaxation, stress-reduction, improvement in one's physical, emotional and functional condition, the encouragement of emotional expression, reduction of feelings of isolation, loneliness and other emotional deprivations.

- Touching an animal by the client may be a type of displacement representing the wish to touch the therapist and receive from the therapist physical warmth, thus the animal serves as a bridge between the client and therapist.

* Reinforcement of Ego Strengths – Animals contribute to the reinforcement of ego strengths on many levels.

- Control and Capability – Taking care of animals provides a meaningful sense of control and capability for those clients for whom these feelings and experiences are rare. For many clients, taking care of animals constitutes their only opportunity to experience the role-reversal of "caring for" instead of "being cared for". This reversal has many meanings and influences on the client's sense of control, self-control, self-concept, self-esteem and sense of security. In addition, the desire to maintain the relationship with the animal constitutes motivation to enlist ego-strengths.

- Reinforcement of Self-Concept – When with animals, the client may be able to experience feelings of acceptance, responsibility, belonging, commitment, along with a sense of being loved and lovable and important to others. The client may exhibit various abilities, the power

to influence others (through influencing the animals), knowledge, and may experience success in relationships with non-human others. These experiences and successes in caring for the animals may enable the client to change his/her image in others' eyes as well as in his/her own, as well as contributing to the raising of the client's self-confidence.

- Self-Regulation, Self-Restraint and Delay of Gratification – In order to be near to many animals and to receive repeated positive reinforcement through closeness, contact and touch, the client must restrain his/her behavior. Many experiences in relationships with animals require the client to control him/herself and to delay gratification.

- Improvement in the Ability to Take Responsibility – Taking part in the cooperative raising of animals (feeding, cleaning, taking care of the animal's surroundings, etc.) requires the client to take responsibility and provides the client with the motivation to do so.

- Reinforcement and Consolidation of Efficient Defenses – Observation and learning through the natural defense mechanisms of the animals' behavior, and through the dynamics of the relationship established by the interactions of the therapist, client and animals, enables the moderation of existing rigid defenses, insights and acquisition of more efficient and appropriate ways of adaption.

* Attachment – Animals may serve as an attachment figure. They arouse a certain attraction and communicative reaction, possibly based upon an inborn need (according to the theory of Biophilia), which is similar to certain aspects of human attachment processes. Out of this, and through the assistance of animals, may develop the internalization of internal representations or working models of interpersonal interactions within healthy relationships. Such a process enables the acquisition of reparative experiences, as well as of skills for new and healthy attachments with others.

* Transitional Object – Animal may serve as meaningful transitional objects.


- As opposed to inanimate objects, animals may offer what the client perceives as active emotional support, affection and unconditional love.

- Animals enable projection without verbal reaction

- Animals are perceived as socially-accepted transitional objects for clients of all ages. This is significant especially for those who find it difficult to allow themselves to have other types of transitional objects for fear of being ridiculed.

- Animals enable the creation of a relatively simple relationship that is not accompanied by many of the conflicts that characterize human relationships.

* Preoccupation with Basic Needs – The presence of animals enables preoccupation with basic needs (touch, nourishment, bodily secretions, etc.) in two ways.

- The presence of animals encourages and enables legitimate expression of regressive and basic needs and makes way for the inner child and for playfulness. This process allows to take place the phenomenon in therapy "regression in service of the ego", which in turn facilitates the construction of the client's personality and ego strengths.

- In comparison to techniques that require a higher ability of symbolization, animals bring into therapy a practical element that may make the therapy especially effective for clients who have suffered trauma at the preverbal stage of development and therefore have a lower ability for symbolization.

* Differentiation between Self and Other and the Development of Empathy – Animals assist in the differentiation between self and other and in the development of the ability to feel empathy. This is due to the fact that animals are not verbal, are different from humans, have needs, are independent in their behavior, initiate behavior, attract the client to seek a relationship with them, and that the relationship is not as emotionally charged and complicated as a human relationship. Thus, a willingness is developed to become acquainted with and learn about the needs of animals, which leads to the acquisition of the ability to take into consideration others as well as oneself. In addition, animals serve as a catalyst for playfulness (made up of projection, displacement, illusion and symbolization) and thus lead to the construction of a sense of autonomy, dissimilarity, separateness from others.

* Active Assistance with the Processes of Separation, with Coping with Loss, and Working Through Both - An animal, as a mediator, guide and enabler of concrete touch in the form of hugging and cuddling, facilitates the dynamics of separation and individuation, which are especially meaningful in the coping with sickness, loss and mourning. Proper working through the separation from an animal, or an animal's death, enables associations with other experiences of loss and their working through them, thus facilitating acceptance, a stage in the mourning process.

* Barometer for Feelings – Certain animals (especially dogs) sense the client's emotional state and react to them accordingly. Such a reaction may reflect to the client, give him/her feedback concerning his/her behavior and thus enable further working through content that come up in therapy.

* The Reenactment and Working Through of Experiences From the Past – The very presence of animals, whether passive or active, aids and enables the client to reenact and work through experiences and feelings from the past, through role-reversal, from the stance of control.

* Experience of Reparation – The client's sense of feeling accepted by the animals, as well as the client's seeing the beneficent care given by the therapist to the animals, enable experiences of reparation, when animals represent various injured or lacking parts or objects from the client's experiences or inner world. In addition, parental behavior on the part of the client towards an animal may in a certain sense be reparative for the client who him/herself was not properly parented. These feelings of lacking as opposed to the reparation in the here and now may be worked through in therapy.

* The Direct Bringing Up of Realistic Content - Animals allow directcontact between the client and various life situations and experiences, such as birth, aggression, aging, instinctual drives, sexuality, sickness and death. Thus, one can openly and legitimately touch upon subjects often thought of as taboo. Dealing with such content, through the animals, facilitates better acquaintance with these parts of the self, working through them, regulating them, accepting them and internalizing them into a more integrated self.

* Sublimation and Moderation of Drives - The connection with animals and taking care of them facilitate the release of energy and the legitimate expression of drives, and the diverting of aggressive drives to constructive doing.

* Enjoyment – Animals in therapy are likely to lead to enjoyment by their very presence, through contact with them and through their playfulness. Thus they encourage:

            1) motivation as a result of enjoyment

            2) improvement in the ability to experience enjoyment in those clients

               that their ability to enjoy as been damaged.

Through this process, enjoyment may enable the very existence of therapy (in clients who normally resist therapy) and lead to the general improvement of the client's emotional condition.

*Sense of Security; Defense; Protection

The therapist as safeguarding and protector of the animal enables a sense of safety, as well as a sense of emotional and physical security, by the client in the therapist as well as in the therapy. In addition, the client's ability to protect the animal and watch over him improves his/her own ability to defend him/herself, and strengthens his/her self-confidence and ability to take responsibility for him/herself. Also, the presence of certain animals and their positive relating to the client enables the client to feel more protected and secure.

* Anxiety Reduction – The presence of animals, as well as touch and activity with them, have meaningful physiological effects on various indexes of symptoms of anxiety and pressure, such as reduction of blood pressure, slowing of heart beat, as well as on the physical causes of emotional well-being, such as the release of serotonin. The reduction of pressure and anxiety and the ensuing feeling of calm enable the client to be more available for the therapy process and working through emotionally difficult content.

* Consolation – The simplicity, directness and legitimacy of touch with an animal may turn the animal into a source of consolation in times of distress. In addition, it may serve as an opportunity for a periodic rest from the working through of emotionally-difficult content within therapy, allowing the client to regain strength in order to continue the session.

Written by: Tamar Hazut, Inbar Barel, Meirav Besser, Idit Brill, Zohar Gal, Liat Hadari-Karkum, Efrat Ma'ayan, Nancy Parish-Plass, Ofra Tirosh, Dikla Tzur, Hila Yulius. June, 2006.

אתם כאן: דף הבית Roles of Animals in AAP
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