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AAT stands for Animal Assisted Therapy which essentially means different kinds of therapy facilitated or assisted by animals.

AAT is well-known in USA and is used within several types of institutions and for a varitety of therapeutical purposes. The use of animals in therapy in Norway is not extensive, although there is some activity which is presently growing in both Norway and Sweden.


There is a difference between AAT and AAA. The latter stands for Animal Assisted Activities, and is based on the prospect of having animals visiting ill people who may cuddle and play with the animals. Most practicioners are volunteers and there is no formal requirement of competence for the owner. This kind of practice does nevertheless require that the animal is calm, controllable, and that it can handle extreme situations that may arise during such visits. In USA, the animal must have been formally approved (mentally and behaviorally) by the organization it represents. AAA aims to encourage and spread joy without any specific therapeutical or rehabilitating goal.

In contrast to AAA, AAT has a concrete goal regarding rehabilitation and the animal is therefore part of a therapeutic agenda. It is here required that a professional (medical doctor, physical therapist, psychologist, et.c.) is responsible for the execution of AAT. The owner or the handler of the dog is not required to be a professional, but may not work without a responsible professional present.

This is just a short presentation. More info can be found in the links to the left, especially on the pages of Delta Society. Animal assisted therapy can be utilized in several arenas, ranging from medical rehabilitation and physical therapy to psychological consultations and visits to prisons. Both benefits and disadvantages of animal assisted therapy have been subjects for research, albeit it is still a relatively young area of research which calls for plenty additional studies.

How can the dog contribute in therapy / rehabilitation?

  • Exposure therapy for people with dog phobias
  • Report building in therapeutic relations
  • Dogs are also used in treatment with autistic children and children with ADD/ADHD in USA. This field is also growing in some european countries (like Sweden)
  • Activate otherwise passive or withdrawn patients, for example psychiatric patients where withdrawal and inactivity is part of the illness
  • Contact with animals have been showed to lower blood pressure and to have other physiological health-promoting benefits (like strengthening the immune system)
  • Provides comfort and intimacy where people can not; for example a psychologist cannot hold someone who is in pain, whereas the dog can assist the therapy to that end
  • Facilitates the relation between the therapist and client where trust with people has been broken or is generally low with the patient (for example sexually or physically abused children)
  • As a part of physical rehabilitation, dogs can assist by being part of the exercises, for example by being groomed, playing fetch or going for a walk
  • Face it; animals usually make people happy, so being visited by a therapy animal in a hospital (or other institutions) can have significant effects on patients mood and well-being
  • Build confidence by providing self-efficacy and the feeling of mastery, for instance while doing activities with the dog (obedience, tricks or agility)
These are just some quick examples to provide a cursory overview of what a therapy dog can be used for concretely. In reality, it is only the imagination of the professional which sets the limits.

Important when using dogs in therapy

It is easy to get carried away by all the excellent opportunities that animal assisted therapy offers. But it requires a tremendous amount of work to raise a dog which is confident and balanced enough to work with ill people. It is therefore recommended to wait until the dog is 3 years old before it is used in therapy (although there are younger therapy dogs). The dog should be able to handle a variety of environments which are full of strong impressions and challenges, and it is therefore imperative that it remains calm even in situations which may seem threatening.

It is particularly important that the owner/handler of the animal ensures that it is not exposed to danger or pain. The safety of the animal is a very high priority in all situations.

Benefits for the therapy dog

Being a therapy dog is also beneficial for the dog itself. First of all, it may have the opportunity to join its owner at work and therefore does not have to spend as much time home alone as other dogs. Secondly, it has a purpose as a working dog and will be challenged regularly both mentally and physically. Third, it will receive much more care and grooming since it is required that it must be clean and groomed when visiting e.g. hospitals. Finally, a therapy dog will also be examined more often by a veterinarian and one may therefore prevent or discover possible diseases earlier. This is also a criteria for the use of therapy dogs.

My goals

When I first decided to become a psychologist, I had a clearly pronounced desire to use dogs in therapy. Although psychologists can constitute a strong difference in the life of suffering people, there are some aspects of humans which are more difficult (and sometimes impossible) to reach. An animal can in theses cases perform much more efficiently than a human.

My goal is to actively use animals in my future practice as a psychologist, and simultaneously do my utmost to promote AAT in Norway.

If you have any questions related to AAT and the use of dogs in therapy, please check out the links to the left or contact me.

To read more about how to train a therapy dog, click here

Recommended literature:

Animal assisted therapy in counseling, Cynthia K. Chandler

The healing power of dogs; Cocoa’s story, Jeanne M. Sorrell (publisert i Journal of psychosocial nursing, Vol. 44, No 1)

Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy; Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, Aubrey H. Fine

Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others, Kathy Diamond Davis