Why I love Animal Assisted Play Therapy®

“Play is the highest form of research.”
Albert Einstein

Lisa Black shares her story of meeting Finley and beginning to explore Animal Assisted Play Therapy.

Last year, I started to come to terms that my one and only child would be transitioning from high school to college. My flustering with this growing awareness manifested itself in a frantic and irresistible (and unsustainable) hovering

Recognizing that this was not the most helpful coping mechanism in responding to my anxiety about my status as a parent, I realized I needed to channel my need for continued mothering into something else, but what? 

My “Ah Ha!” moment was during an extended visit to Austin last summer. I remember the moment it hit me. While parked at a light on Caesar Chavez, looking at the parade of dog and human bonds walking, running, and playing, I realized that I. needed. a. dog. 

My eagerness to involve more playfulness into my life is inspired by not only the children I help as a Play Therapist, but also by professionals, educators and researchers who have shown, over decades of research and practice, the benefits of play for everyone. 

Discovering Dr. Rise VanFleet’s and Tracie Faa-Thompson’s co-development of Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) widened the possibilities of integrating the power of play and relationship into my personal and professional life. Having been introduced to VanFleet’s research and practice in the field of play therapy in my training as a Play Therapist, I felt confident that AAPT®’s guiding principles were a good fit for me.   

My confidence was not misplaced. 

With the foreknowledge from Dr. VanFleet that a Texas training for AAPT® level I was forthcoming in 2019, I made a plan to learn about the selection process for a dog.

After consulting with Dr. VanFleet, and carefully considering the needs of my family (including my two grown cats), I decided on a puppy. With some luck, I discovered a yellow lab mix puppy ready to play, interact and wide awake, while his siblings were hiding, sleeping or running away.  

These were important characteristics in my search for a dog. In AAPT®, play therapy animals are going to be different than animals that may visit nursing homes, hospitals or libraries. Rather, animals in AAPT® need to be more energetic, more active.  

Finley, as my fair-haired hero came to be named, still loves to play. I didn’t know how much this would endure in his personality when he was a puppy, but I am pleased by his continued interest and motivation to play and be with kids. It is his joy. Playing hide and go seek, being clicker trained and figuring out puzzles — these are more of an interest to him than playing catch. 

Like the power of play, implications for the use of AAPT® include stress-reduction, overcoming resistance to the therapeutic process and setting, improving communication, helping clients gain confidence in problem-solving and mastery. One of the most applicable advantages of AAPT® is helping clients experience empathy, trust and relationship with the animal, and with the therapist’s help, generalize these experiences to their human relationships.  

Since my “aha” moment, I moved to Austin, and I’ve become a proud parent of a Longhorn who has graciously accepted that his mom calls him Finley (only sometimes!).  I continue to grow as a practitioner of AAPT®, with plans to take the second level towards certification in 2020. 

In the meantime, supervision and support from others who are also learning is giving me a fresh perspective to a compassionate mindset that is especially helpful to a mother in transition. I have found such solace in Finley, and my hope is that your child in their own transitions may experience the benefits of building lasting, loving and kind relationship with themselves, and others, through the power of play.


Interested in booking an Animal Assisted Play Therapy® session with Lisa & Finley?


VanFleet, R. (2004).  It’s only natural: Exploring the play in play therapy workshop manual.      Boiling Springs, PA: Play Therapy Press.
VanFleet, R. (2008). Play therapy with kids & canines: Benefits of children’s developmental and psychosocial health. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press. 
VanFleet, R., Faa-Thompson, T. (2017). Animal Assisted Therapy ™ .  Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Exchange. 

TherapyLisa J. Black