My name is Lucy Llewellyn, and my dog and I are “Paws4Play.” I am a qualified social worker, qualified play therapist, and Certified Animal Assisted Play Therapist. I work mostly with children who have experienced abuse, neglect, and trauma. I help these children work through these poor life experiences using a mental health intervention called play therapy.

Animal Assisted Play Therapy™ is defined as “The involvement of animals in the context of play therapy, in which appropriately trained therapists and animals engage with the clients primarily through systematic playful intervention, with the goal of improving the clients’ developmental and psychosocial health as well as the animal’s well-being. Play and playfulness are the essential ingredients of the interactions and the relationship.” So what does this mean, and what do I do? And—probably of more interest—is how is the experience for the animal involved?

I have always had my own pet dogs and so when I discovered the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy™ founded by Dr. Risë VanFleet and Tracie Faa-Thompson, I decided this was something I wanted to become more involved in. I particularly liked that the animal had to actively enjoy the activities and the play had to be mutually beneficial.

Lykke, my certified play therapy dog, is a rescued Lurcher. I have trained her using positive methods, under the guidance of some very positive trainers and consultants. She is generally well-behaved, but she brings her own personality into the play. She is definitely not a toy; she is my assistant. Her wishes and feelings are equivalent in importance to those of the child. She always has a choice whether to interact or not, and can leave the room if she wants. I am the trained therapist, so it is my responsibility to build the relationship with the child and use the material presented to enhance the child’s goals.

The author and play therapy dog Lykke. Image credit: Dr. Risë VanFleet

The author and play therapy dog Lykke. Image credit: Dr. Risë VanFleet

Before I bring Lykke in to work with a child, the child and I play through how to meet a dog using a puppet. I teach the child to “Be a Tree,” using some basic dog body language material from DoggoneSafe, as well as how to greet a dog safely and how to give treats. We might also do some clicker work using our own bodies. I teach the child that there’s no hugging Lykke allowed! Enjoyment, not tolerance, is my goal for everyone involved.

An example of our work

Lykke and I had been seeing a 5-year-old girl for a few weeks. She had been removed from her birth family following neglect and physical injuries. She had lived in several foster homes, and was not making relationships with her carers. For a couple of sessions with me, she had drawn pictures and painted, not paying much attention to Lykke other than to stroke her and give her treats. Lykke would lean against her while she drew.

The following week, she decided to pull out the sandpit (a small plastic box on wheels, filled with sand). She chose two trucks to wheel through the sand—a big one and a little one. As the play developed, the little truck started to get lost. Lykke and I were peering into the sand, and I expressed my worry about the little truck to Lykke, saying, “It looks like the little truck is lost; that big truck hasn’t noticed the little truck is left behind.” As the play developed, the child added water, so there were rivers running, wind blowing, and every time the big and little truck were near reuniting, another river would spring up. I kept on reflecting how terrible the storm was, how scary it must be for the little truck and telling Lykke how worried I was for the little truck. Lykke was sitting there watching—not under any instruction and free to do and be wherever she wanted. Lykke then surprised me by getting into the sandpit and digging the little truck out. As a therapist, I commented how Lykke could not bear it any longer and needed to find the little truck—but I could put it back, and Lykke could sit elsewhere. The child looked at me and said: “She found me.”

This was an important step for this child, to name the little truck as herself and to play through all the losses she had endured. She went on in further sessions to play at being a baby with Lykke as the mother, who was very attentive and provided food for her. Obviously, it was me doing this, but by saying, “Here is your bottle, Lykke has made it for you,” we were staying within the imaginative play. In the playroom, the child played through a lot of the trauma she had experienced in the past. She was able to build a relationship with Lykke, then went on to make a strong relationship with her forever family.

The involvement of a play therapy dog is different from any other programme I am aware of. In play therapy, the dogs are actively involved and participate off leash. The dog can be involved in different ways, according to the temperament and interests of the dog. When Lykke sees a new toy, she often prods it with her nose or pounces on it. Using her natural approach, I have put on cue “Fetch help” prodding a police helmet, which has a push button siren with her nose. She can roll a large foam die, play shop by pushing buttons on a cash register, and she will drink water from tea cups in a tea party.

She has many trained behaviors, but it is the relationship building I encourage, which is when the child learns to consider Lykke’s feelings, likes, and dislikes. If Lykke doesn’t like an activity, the choice is given to the child, either to change the activity or for Lykke to take a break.  Sometimes the play is free flowing, whereas other times it may be very structured and task orientated, such as agility or training a new trick. I decide what our goals are and which methods to use before starting work with a child.

Working with a dog in play therapy is not easy. It is much more complicated than bringing a nice dog to work, and training and supervision are essential. The International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy offers a rigorous training programme that encompasses several key areas, including modules on canine behavior and positive training, reading the body language of two species, and how to incorporate an animal in therapeutic work. The course requires online and written work as well as attending Level 1 and 2 in person. The assessment process is both written and through direct observation. Lykke was assessed by Dr. Risë VanFleet in person, using the Animal Appropriateness Scale. The quality of the therapist-animal relationship is also assessed, and a therapy involvement plan needs to be written.  The certification process is very thorough, with ongoing supervision via secure video. There are several levels of certification available, including one level specifically for dog and horse professionals.

So far the course is run yearly in the U.K., all over the U.S., as well as Australia. Lykke is heading for retirement from working with children, and we assist at the U.K. training. Lykke has met therapists from all over the world including the U.S., South Africa, Singapore, Netherlands, and the U.K. The full details of the course are available online at www.iiaapt.org.

All client details in this article have been altered to protect their privacy.