Introduction to Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)

Published on March 16, 2015

What is Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a goal directed intervention whereby a trained animal is incorporated into the therapeutic process, promoting the improvement of human’s physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functioning. 1

AAT is a therapeutic tool that can be utilized in the counselling/psychotherapy process, providing social and emotional benefit to clients. For example, AAT can help children with anger issues to process their emotions, and learn ways to effectively manage their anger; working with an animal also provides ample opportunity for the child to learn empathy, patience, kindness and communication skills.

Although part of AAT is highly experiential, AAT also works well in combination with traditional evidence based methodologies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Solution Focused Therapy.

History of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)

Although the soothing presence of animals have been noted for hundreds of years, child psychologist, Boris Levinson, was the first to formalize the use of animals in therapy in 1962. Levinson observed that the presence of his dog, Jingles, helped him to make significant progress with children who were withdrawn and uncommunicative. Even Sigmund Frued noticed that having his dog, Jofi, present during a psychoanalysis session helped his patients to relax and confide in him.

Difference between Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and Animal Assisted Activities (AAA)

Many people confuse AAT with AAA. While AAT is a clinical goal directed intervention delivered by a professional, AAA consists of casual “meet and greet” interactions between pets and people.  For example in AAA, a volunteer would bring her dog to a hospice to visit and bring cheer to the elderly residents. While AAA visits can be very soothing, it is not therapy per se.

Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy  (AAT)

Animals are a wonderful catalyst for human social interactions. They provide comfort, acceptance and a non-judgmental presence. As such, they facilitate the building of trust and rapport in the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client, making it easier for clients to open up and talk about difficult issues. 

We have seen children and youth who are normally resistant to the idea of therapy, open up and participate actively in our AAT sessions. Animals change the perception of therapy, making it fun and motivating clients to want to attend and participate.

Animals also help to reduce stress and anxiety in clients. Studies have shown that, interaction with a therapy dog result in a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, as well as an increase in social inducing hormone oxytocin.

In addition, AAT has been seen to help clients to develop various skillsets such as communication, empathy, nurturing, focus, responsibility, self-esteem and healthy social interactions.

What kind of animals are used in Animal Assisted Therapy  (AAT)?  Is AAT safe?

Many different kinds of animals are utilized in AAT, with the most common ones being dogs, cats and horses. The best animals for AAT work are social in nature and enjoy interaction with humans.

In working with animals, safety is always a primary concern. A competent therapist should be able to facilitate a safe and productive interaction between the animal and the client. Animals involved in AAT work should be:

  • Certified by a veterinarian to be in good health, and should be up to date on all necessary vaccinations
  • Appropriately trained for AAT
  • Handled by a therapist trained in both mental health and AAT

Before embarking on AAT, clients should make sure they:

  • Do not have allergies to animals
  • Have obtained clearance from their doctor to go ahead, if they have a health condition that reduces their immunity (e.g., cancer, HIV)

Our Approach at Pawsibility

Located in Singapore, Pawsibility specializes in the use of AAT in counselling children and youth between the ages of 4-20years old. We work with a specially trained therapy dog during our counselling sessions in helping our clients achieve their social or emotional goals. Some of these goals include helping children and youth adapt to transitions, deal with relationship issues, increase self esteem, manage anixety, stress and anger. Pawsibility also works with people with special needs in building social skills. Pawsibility conducts both individual and group AAT sessions.

At Pawsibility, we believe that the human animal bond can touch lives, teach skills and motivate change.




Pet Partners defines AAT as "a goal-directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession. AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning [cognitive functioning refers to thinking and intellectual skills]. AAT is provided in a variety of settings and may be group or individual in nature. This process is documented and evaluated."





Category(s):Adjusting to Change / Life Transitions, Anger Management, Anxiety, Asperger's Syndrome, Attachment Issues, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Bullying, Child and/or Adolescent Issues, Depression, Divorce / Divorce Adjustment, Empathy, Family Problems, Fear, Friendships, Grief, Loss, Bereavement, Happiness, Inattention, Impulsivity, & Hyperactivity (ADHD), Mental Health in Asia, Oppositional & Defiant Behavior in Children & Teens, Other, Parenting, Relaxation techniques, Self-Esteem, Social Anxiety / Phobia, Stress Management

Written by:

Maureen Huang, MSW, AASW

Maureen specializes in the use of Animal Assisted Therapy in counselling children and youth facing various challenges including anxiety, depression, anger management, self esteem issues, relationship issues, dealing with transitions, managing special needs etc. Maureen also seeks to help her clients build strong social emotional skills.

Maureen obtained her Master of Social Work from the University of Denver in the United States of America. Her focus at Graduate School was clinical work with families, with an emphasis in animal assisted interventions.

Maureen works closely with her co-therapist, Telly the Therapy Dog. Telly is a friendly and playful Labrador Retriever who loves helping people.

Maureen Huang, MSW, AASW belongs to Pawsibility Pte Ltd in Singapore