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Animal Assisted Therapy

Domesticated animals have played a role in the lives of humans for thousands of years (Brodie & Biley, 1999). Beginning in the 9th century, animals were used for therapeutic purposes including assisting individuals with disabilities, while in the 18th century animals began to be utilized in mental health treatment settings to improve patients’ socialization skills. In the 1960’s there was an increasing appreciation for the health-inducing benefits of animal-human interactions. The practice of incorporating trained animals in therapeutic settings became more widespread. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, used dogs in his therapy sessions. He observed that his patients felt more encouraged, relaxed, and able to confide when dogs were present in session.

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Today, healthcare providers employ animal-assisted therapy in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics and nursing homes. Many doctor’s and dentist’s offices have fish tanks in their waiting rooms to promote a sense of calm. It is now well known that the presence of animals can induce relaxation, increase positive emotions and put patients’ minds at ease. The American Humane Association defines animal-assisted therapy as: “a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical health-care treatment process. Animal-assisted therapy is delivered or directed Animal Assisted Therapy Session with Dog in Tacomaby a professional health or human service provider who demonstrates skill and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions.”

Animal-assisted psychotherapy involves conducting a psychotherapy session with a certified therapy dog present. Animal-assisted psychotherapy incorporates all types of psychotherapy from cognitive-behavioral to psychoanalytic. The therapy animal is utilized as an adjunct to a therapeutic process, and becomes another tool in the tool-kit of therapy practice. The beauty of animal-assisted therapy is that it can be tailored to individual clients. The therapy dog can be instructed to sit next to patients so they can pet the animal throughout their session, or the therapy dog can be instructed to remain on his or her bed during the session, depending on the patient’s individual comfort level. Thus, the therapeutic approach during an animal-assisted psychotherapy session is individualized for each client. It is essentially the same as regular psychotherapy, but with a certified therapy dog present, to help reduce anxiety, depression, pain, and discomfort which adds to the effectiveness of the therapy session. The physical closeness and calm reassurance that trained therapy dogs provide are truly unique to the animal assisted therapy process.

Therapy Dog Certification For Work in Healthcare Settings

There are many credentialing organizations which train owners and their pets to become animal therapists, and this extensive training ensures that safety “Baileypractices will be followed to minimize risk to patients. While horses, cats, and other animals can all be trained to participate in therapy, the most widespread animals trained for this purpose are dogs. The training typically involves an intensive structured course instructed by certified trainers. An exam and shadow visits in healthcare settings with certified trainers are typically completed before the certification is awarded. Therapy dogs are required to pass an exam which assesses their ability to tolerate potentially stressful stimuli from the environment and complete basic training commands. Dogs are certified with a specific therapist to ensure that the therapist handling the animal has been approved as safe and capable of working with the animal in a healthcare setting.

How is Animal-Assisted Therapy Helpful?

Research has shown that when dogs are involved in psychotherapy, patients experience lowered blood pressure, improved cardiovascular health, the release of endorphins that have a calming effect and resulted in reduced physical pain. Other observed benefits included decreased depression, improved communication skills, reduced anxiety and increased motivation for change (Francis et al., 1985; Hooker, Holbrook, & Stewart, 2002; Brodie & Biley, 1999; Sobo, Eng, & Kassity-Krich, 2006). In addition, therapy dogs can form a reassuring, non-verbal and tactile comfort that may help break the cycle of hopelessness and social withdrawal, which can be extremely helpful for adults and children with socialization problems (Michaels, 1982).

Concerns that Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy Can Address

Animal-assisted therapy can be helpful in treating a broad range of issues, including but not limited to: depression, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, mood disturbances, chronic pain, interpersonal problems, chronic medical problems, eating disorders and phobias. Psychologists who provide animal-assisted psychotherapy work collaboratively with their patients to establish treatment goals and to monitor the patient’s progress throughout treatment. Goals for treatment can include reducing depression and anxiety, improving social functioning and learning non-pharamacological pain management strategies. Animal-assisted psychotherapy can be effective with these and many other issues.

Learn more about animal-assisted psychotherapy at APA

“SeattleTo learn more about animal-assisted psychotherapy, please see our Articles Page in the Resources section for a link to an informative article about animal-assisted therapy. While the potential benefits of pet therapy have been well documented, it can be difficult to find practitioners offering animal assisted therapy in Tacoma to greater Seattle area. We currently have one doctor, Jennifer Galbreath, Psy.D., at Allenmore Psychological Associates who provides animal-assisted psychotherapy. (Learn more about Dr. Galbreath).

Dr. Jennifer Galbreath, Psy.D., currently provides psychotherapy with her certified therapy dog, Bailey, and is accepting new psychotherapy clients. Bailey is a very calm and sweet 18-month old havanese-poodle mix who was rescued from the Humane Society. She is non-shedding and hypoallergenic, which reduces the likelihood that she will trigger allergies in patients. Bailey is certified through a Seattle based non-profit with high certification standards. Bailey loves her job of supporting people and helping them reach their goals in their therapy sessions. Together, Dr. Galbreath and Bailey are one of the only teams actively offering animal assisted therapy to Tacoma WA area clients. Call (253) 752-7320 for more information about animal-assisted psychotherapy.


Brodie, S. & Biley, F. (1999). An exploration of the potential benefits of pet-facilitated therapy. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 8.

Francis, G.M., Turner, J.& Johnson, S. (1985). Domestic animal visitation as therapy with adult home residents. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 22(3), 201-206.

Hooker, S., Holbrook Freeman, L., & Stewart, P. (2002). Pet therapy research: A historical review. Holistic Nursing Practice, 17(1).

Michaels, E. (1982). Pets and the elderly: A therapeutic friendship. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 127, 70-71.

Sobo, Eng, & Kassity-Krich (2006). Canine visitation (pet) therapy: Pilot data on decreases in child pain perception. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 24(1), 51-57.