Applied Psychology & Counselor Education
University of Northern Colorado
Type of Resources
Place of Publication
University of Northern Colorado
The purpose of this study was to understand mental health/human services professionals' processes, perspectives, and beliefs about animal assisted therapy. There has been an increase in the use of animals in therapy over the last 40 years. Animals are being used to help clients with a variety of mental and physical problems. In 2007, Division 17 of the American Psychological Association established Section 13, Animal-Human Interaction: Research and Practice, to educate professionals and scholars on understanding animal-human interaction in relation to counseling psychology. Six licensed master's and doctoral level professionals were selected based on their current use of animals in a therapeutic setting. In this qualitative study, in depth semi-structured interviews were conducted to identify the perspectives, values, and beliefs of participants who believe that utilizing animals in therapy provides value to their clients. Each participant completed two phone interviews which were transcribed and reviewed. The interviews were then analyzed, both within-case and cross-case. The within-case analysis revealed each participant's history with animals, their values and beliefs about the benefits that animals provide, as well as their individual perspectives and paths on integrating animals into their therapeutic environment. The cross-case analysis was conducted by an analysis of the themes that were initially generated after review of the interviews. The cross-case analysis yielded five themes that were consistent among at least four or more of the participants. The themes that emerged were animal characteristics, use of metaphors/learning tools, written documentation, therapeutic factors in AAT, and benefits for clients. The participants believed that the animals should be well trained and interact positively with the clients. The participants utilized the animals in a number of different capacities, but many of them used the animals as a metaphor or learning tool to help the client gain greater insight and understanding into their problems. The participants documented the use of the animal in sessions in their clinical notes; the degree to which they documented depended on the intervention the animal was used for. The participants described several key therapeutic factors that the animals provided that helped make the invention successful, such as the animals' ability to decrease the client's anxiety level, and provide the client with unconditional acceptance. Finally, the participants described numerous examples of how and why they felt the animals helped the therapeutic relationship, and assisted the clients in achieving their treatment plan goals. Further research is necessary to continue to gain a better understanding of professionals' process on integrating animals into the therapeutic environment. There needs to be a standardized system for education, training, and certification for professionals on the integration and use of animals in a therapeutic environment. Finally, more research is needed on how to document the use and effectiveness of an animal intervention.
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