Animal Assisted Interaction

There are many physical and emotional benefits derived from Animal Assisted Interactions. Animals play a hugely important role in the therapeutic process of many people, including family members and medical staff that care for the critically and chronically ill.


Under the umbrella of Animal Assisted Interactions one will find Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT).  Both are delivered in a variety of environments by specially trained professionals, paraprofessionals, and /or volunteers, in association with animals that meet specific criteria.  Some examples of these criteria include mastery of basic obedience skills, a social demeanor and enjoying interactions with strangers.  The person of the team needs to be in control of their animal and have the capacity to be attentive to both their animal and the individual(s) they are visiting.  Many therapy animals are dogs but there are also cats, guinea pigs, horses, llamas and chickens.
One of the key features that distinguishes AAA from AAT is that AAA does not include planned treatment goals and the interactions are spontaneous. An example of AAA would be a therapy dog team going from room to room in an extended care facility visiting residents and their family members to brighten their day.  While the effects of the visit are quite beneficial, they were not specifically planned and are not included in a patient’s treatment plan. 

Conversely, AAT is overseen by a health/human service provider as part of his or her professional services—integrating an animal into the therapeutic process.  The health care professional may handle his or her own animal or invite a volunteer, under their direction, to be the handler.  AAT is always goal directed and its effects are always documented by the health care professional.  The goals of the therapeutic process are specific and established before the session. As an example, a physical therapist with the goal of improving the range of motion of a child’s left arm might encourage that child to brush, pet or feed a therapy animal with their left hand.  These actions serve to stimulate use of the muscle groups targeted for therapy in a manner the patient is much less likely to resist.  Often, they do not even realize that any “therapy” is taking place (Delta Society Student Manual, 2007)!

Historic Roots

Any of us who have felt the positive interaction with an animal knows how beneficial it is to our well- being, both physiologically and emotionally. Taking this bond one step further and sharing it with others is the core of animal assisted interactions.

While it is not known when animals were first used in therapeutic settings, it is known that people with serious disabling conditions have benefitted from horseback riding for centuries.   In 1792, animals were used in treatment for psychiatric patients at York Retreat in England (Satter 2007). This is significant because at the time most people believed those with psychological disorders to be possessed and the prescribed treatments were quite severe. York Retreat was well ahead of its time. 

Many mental health care professionals currently incorporate their animal companions into their therapeutic treatment plan. This methodology is not new. Sigmund Freud incorporated his own dog, a Chow-Chow named Jo-Fi, in his clinical practice, based on his belief that dogs had the ability to judge a person’s character accurately (Eggiman 2006).  Boris Levinson similarly learned the value of incorporating animals into the therapeutic process when his dog Jingles came into a therapy session with a child he was treating (Dickstein 1997).

More recently organizations have evolved that establish criteria, document results, educate the public, and validate the field of AAI. These organizations also address the importance of the animal’s well being.  One such organization is the Delta Society. The Delta Society was co-founded in 1983 by Leo K. Bustad, DVM, Ph.D. and Michael McCulloch.   “In large part due to Dr. Bustad’s visionary leadership, our society and the world is now understanding and embracing the healing power of animals,” says Larry Norvelle, current President/CEO of the Delta Society (Delta Society).

Today AAT is incorporated into physical, occupational, educational, speech and psychological therapeutic treatment plans.


Among the benefits derived from AAI are reductions in blood pressure and stress.  This is important for both the patients and their family members.  Similarly, there are many instances when patients will do things in the context of AAI that they will not do in its absence.  Patients will walk a dog down the hall but will not walk with just family members or medical staff, patients will say words to interact with animals when they will not speak in other situations, patients will move their arms to brush an animal when they will not do so in other situations and the list goes on.  In short, animals play a hugely important role in the therapeutic process of many people.  Family members and medical staff that care for the critically and chronically ill also benefit immensely from interactions with an animal visitor. 

For victims of abuse, economically disadvantaged children or teenagers with behavioral problems and others who have suffered traumatic experiences, AAI can assist in building trust and also help to develop healthy relationships.  There is a significant body of literature that indicates that the presence of animals facilitates the development of rapport (Dickstein 1997).  Incorporating animals into treatment modalities allows health care professionals to take a more holistic approach to the individual’s wellbeing.

When the public at large sees what therapy animals contribute to society, it indirectly elevates the opinion and status of animals. This contributes to more respect and greater humane treatment toward all animals.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Many, if not all, of the national and local groups that certify therapy animals fall within the nonprofit sector.  Additionally, the goal of these organizations is to enable people, along with their animals, to give of their time and talents to help those in need.  What greater tie to philanthropy could there be?

Important People Related to Topic

Important people related to the topic of Animal Assisted Interaction (AAI) include:

  • Aaron Katcher, MD and Alan Beck, Ph.D., co-authors of Between Pets and People.  Aaron Kathcher is a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania and Alan Beck is the director of Purdue's Center for Applied Ethology and Human-Animal Interaction

  • Boris M. Levinson, Ph.D. author of Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy. Boris Levinson was an early pioneer in the modern resurgence of incorporating pets into the therapeutic process. 

  • Samuel B. Ross, Jr., Ph.D., Founder of Green Chimneys.  Green Chimneys operates residential treatment for children and a special education school at which animal-assisted activities and therapy are used extensively.

  • Sandi Martin, RN, BSN, NCBF, founder of Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ), a program of Intermountain Therapy Animals. Reading to dogs occurs in schools and libraries across the country as a result of Sandi’s groundbreaking idea of pairing children who were having difficulty reading with therapy dogs.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Organizations that demonstrate the strength of the human-animal bond and integrate animals into improving the quality of life for individuals with special needs include:

  • North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Inc. (NAHRA) NAHRA fosters safe, professional, ethical and therapeutic equine activities through education, communication, research and standards. The association ensures its standards are met through an accreditation process for centers and a certification process for instructors.

  • The Delta Society is a charitable and philanthropic organization and leading international resource for the human-animal bond.  The society developed the Standards of Practice in Animal-Assisted Activities and Animal Assisted Therapy.  This provides a sound base on which to build safe AAA/AAT programs.  The society also certifies a wide variety of therapy animals along with their humans in Pet Partner® teams.

Related Web Sites

  • Delta Society Resource Center Provides guidelines for AAI.

  • Intermountain Therapy AnimalsKnown for: Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.)

  • Association of Pet Dog Trainers (A.P.D.T.)Provides guidelines for ethical training and has certification process for  professional dog trainers.

  • Angel on a Leash, a Charity of the Westminster Kennel Club.A therapy dog program that has affiliations with Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital New York Presbyterian, St. Judes, TN, Ronald McDonald House, NYC, Hackensack University Hospital, NJ,  Sloan Kettering, NYC, Providence Health Care Center (Portland, OR), and New Milford, CT.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Delta Society. Pet Partners Team Training Course Manual (7th ed.). Bellevue, WA: Author, 2007.
Delta Society. Celebrating a Life of Compassion: Leo K. Bustad, DVM, PhD, A Tribute to the Man and His Work.  Accessed 10 March 2008.
Dickstein, Sheryl. “The effects of the presence of a friendly dog on anxiety and rapport development. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, 1997.

Eggiman, Janet. “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy:  A Case Report—Animal-Assisted Therapy.” Topics in Advanced Practice Nursing e.Journal, 6(3), 2006 In Medscape, accessed 10 March 2008.
Satter, Doreen B. “Companion Animals and Your Health: How Pets Help Us Deal with Stress
and Other Conditions.” Associated Content, April 12, 2007,