How to Add Animal Assisted Therapy to Your Specialized Practice

 An Interview Series By AATPC

 Published on August 16th, 2021


 Hello all, my name is Mike and I wanted to take the opportunity in this series of blogs to interview Animal Assisted Therapists about how they incorporate their other therapeutic specialities into the mix with animal assisted psychotherapy.

 This series of blogs will be presented in interview format. An audio verison will also be availabe for this first interview through our social media platforms. Stay tuned for other presentation methods in future posts. 

 Our first interview is with one of our clinicians here at Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado, Elizabeth Worth, LPCC. She is working toward becoming a Registered Play Therapist as well as completing training in EMDR Therapy. 

 She also has a background in eco-therapy. 


Mike: All right, so I'm here with Elizabeth. Elizabeth is one of our clinicians over here at Animal Assisted and so today we're going to spend some time talking about her role at AATPC, as well as some of her specialties working here. So hello!

Elizabeth: Hi!

Mike: So first of all, thanks for joining me today. I know it's gonna be probably pretty funny for later on as I transcribe this because there's kittens moving around in the space.

Elizabeth: Gouda (kitten) is all I'm totally a part of this interview. 

Mike: Hi, buddy (petting kitten). Yeah, so I wanted to spend a little bit of time today talking about your specialty and how you approach animal assisted therapy and how you combine the two together. So whatever, you feel starting with let's start with that okay?

Elizabeth on Play Therapy, Eco Therapy and Being Mindful

Elizabeth: So I would say my specialties probably play therapy. Okay, I'm working toward my registered play therapy certification as I work toward my LPC. So, kiddos have always been the passion of mine and where I kind of want to work but I found that I like having some adults in my case load too. Having a nice balance is really good but definitely focus more so on the kiddos and that play therapy piece on top of that. 

I would say go more than just the animal system. I go more into eco therapy, so the nature therapy, those kinds of mindfulness things, okay. I love to be in the garden with clients and just set up some towels and sometimes when they're just really stressed and overwhelmed and they don't want to talk we just ground in the grass, we'll take our shoes off and literally bury our toes in the ground.

Mike: yeah.

Elizabeth: Put our feet in the grass, notice how it feels, that we notice all around us. Lately, it's been so cool and we kind of noticed that and the flowers and that will ground them so we can actually do some work and it's also kind of teaching them that skills when you feel overwhelmed that your own house, you know, you can step outside barefoot in and do the same kind of things. So I really try to at the beginning, kind of set those kinds of foundations with clients to teach them those skills and we just do them over and over together so that even if they can't do it in their spare time, they kind of have a place to do that. So very nature based.

Mike: Very nature based and it sounds as if being able to be mindful and also being able to translate some of these skills to places that such as home to so it's easy to do.

Elizabeth:  Yeah I kind of always say to my clients, I start them with the foundations of therapy. That's building a relationship and just starting with coping skills wherever you can kind of push them in and teaching them better things, whether that's body movement, whether that's nature, whether that just ‘hey your animals trying to play with you, what are they telling you? maybe you should play with them? and take that time instead of being so focused on everything else’.

Mike: Right. 

Elizabeth: Yeah so really trying to kind of find tools that fit in with their life or something they're missing. I've clients being 'I want to learn to be outside more. I want to be this."So I totally kind of take that and run with it and just see how creative I can be with them. Really make it something that fits for them per se .

Mike: What are some ways that you would say you help people connect with outside, if they're ‘oh I'm having a hard time doing that’? What are some ways you can go ‘hey let's do X Y and Z and what would you say?

Elizabeth: Yeah actually I have a client who's terrified of bugs. She was 'let's go weed in the garden'. I'm totally into it. We get there and she saw a bug and literally ran. 

Mike: Oh wow.

Elizabeth: and was done. So we kind of pull back and we went a little less. So instead, we just sit outside and just kind of observe and let the bugs kind of, you know be a little farther away so it's challenge by choice. We take it slower, if needed okay and kind of pull away from being so in nature and just kind of taking a little baby steps to get acclimated to it. And sometimes even that means inside planting something in the dirt but being in a room inside, not doing it outside right but yeah that's bringing nature into us and making it a little more attainable for someone who's maybe not  ‘hey we're gonna go ahead and jump right into it.’

Mike: But at times you're, ‘I'm gonna go ahead and take a second and start off small and then kind of build up if we need.’

Elizabeth: Exactly. Depending on the kind person. I got another client, she just came in and she couldn't even talk, she didn't even have words to talk so I said we're gonna go for a walk. That's what we did. We took one of the trails alongside here and we just noticed everything and by the time we had noticed the bugs, the butterflies, the grasses, the sun setting with the mountains, it's so beautiful here, on our property she's ‘oh my gosh, I feel better! How did that work!?’ you know, and it's such a simple thing to just take a walk in nature 

Mike: it is yeah.

Elizabeth: But it's something we take for granted right? We're not connected. We're more connected to technology, so I'm really trying to reach those skills of these simple things that really aren't hard, and are really helpful and healing and that's kind of what's helped me in my own healing is hiking and being outside so I really try to kind of utilize things that I've experienced and that I kind of practice what I preach too. I try to do that.

Mike:  Yeah it really sounds as if you do too. I hear this. “Yeah I can't get out of the garden. I'm going walking and hiking with my clients,  I'm trying to get everyone connected and grounded and mindful of the things that are going on around them”.

Elizabeth: Yeah, absolutely and then I definitely try to tie in just body movement and be holistic. There's so many parts of us, which as I work from Gestalt kind of theory, is how do I then, let them move around when we're walking and doing things? Is that spinning around? Do we need to do some stretching together? How does that kind of work, to heal those pieces and to teach them those kind of skills as well?

Mike: oh that's so awesome.

Elizabeth: Yeah, a few of my clients we do yoga together outside on towels in the grass, it's what we do every session. 

Elizabeth on Animal Assisted Psychotherapy 

Mike: So we've talked a little bit, so far about your specialties and some more of the eco therapy, play therapy and some more of that mindfulness and gestalt work. How does it look in terms of the animal work? What does that look like on your end? 

Elizabeth:  Yeah, so the animals are just another piece of the relationship. I kind of view it as,’ what animal does my client need to interact with to teach them that kind of relational skill as well’ or make that a piece of treatment?’ So kind of what they need. I have a client who's has a fear of cats and part of her goal of coming here was working through that and forming relationships with cats which normally they come up to where she is and literally she jumps and will sometimes even be like a cat. 

Elizabeth: But that's a real experience for some people too right? Most of our work is going to the FIV cat room and she started when there was only Fred and Oliver on there. And has had to kind of watch the family grow. When she was a little hesitant about and she said ' don't know how I feel about these new cats' but she's learned that they're really safe and good cats too and she actually is less jumpy with them and will pet every single one of them! Which is a huge! Yeah so I kind of just have that animal assisted piece as kind of wherever it's needed, kind of sprinkle that in and balance that with the other interventions to see what that person actually needs. I look at them and think 'What's actually helpful for you today? Is it okay to be inside sometimes and sometimes it is outside other times?’ It's yep. We're gonna go out and be with the goats or the horses and that turns into mindfulness kind of eco-therapy in itself as well.

Elizabeth on where Animal Assisted Therapy Meets Her Specialties 

Mike: Right, okay. The next question was going to be about this intersection but it sounds as if you're judging it based on the moment too and not necessarily going ‘all right, we are gonna go ahead and force the situation. Let's see what happens in the moment’ and ‘how we can kind of make that happen? Does it need to be more mindfulness time in the garden today? Sure let's go do that. Does it need to be time with the goats and running around? Hey, let's go have fun with that as well.

Elizabeth: Right.

Mike: Sounds as though you kind of flow with what they need.

Elizabeth: Yeah I do and I really try to see each of my, individual clients and base it upon what I truly think they need. I get that kind of leading edge and that intuition about them once I built that relationship to kind of just learn to know what they might need when they show up. Sometimes I have this beautiful plant thing and this is gonna be great and they show up and I feel their energy,  and I know not today, okay, it's never gonna go do this with X animal cuz you just need some animal time because that's a thing too right it is it's a real thing sometimes an actual plan intervention isn't what they need sometimes they just need to spend time with an animal and that's a different type of mindfulness, of this building that relationship and just knowing that there's not always pressure to do something. 

You're allowed to just kind of show up as you are and process through that however that looks for that.

Mike: Right, yeah because I've heard that from other people too. Where sometimes there's that pressure to go ahead and respond while in therapy and it sounds as if you're saying ‘hey hold on, let's take it moment by moment and see what fits’.

Elizabeth:  Absolutely and because I work from such a holistic perspective, some sessions me and my client we don't really talk. We just move through things together and when my clients was ‘how did you know that was what I needed? I didn't need to talk about the loss of my ex anymore. I didn’t need to talk, I need to just like move body through it’. And that's what we did. We just walk through stretches together, by the end of it she's was ‘I feel better’ and we had identified where in her body she's feeling her grief of losing her family member and then from there we just literally just moved through it she was ‘I never would have thought of doing that’. It's moments like that, I'm starting to realize and piece together and figure out, you know, kind of what everyone needs and go from there. 

Mike: That's amazing! 

Elizabeth: Thanks. 

Mike: I'm just thinking about that. I think it's really a fun approach and it's also it sounds as if it's really helpful, for your clients too.

Elizabeth:  Yeah it was at that play piece into making things fun and being kind of big and really expressing myself so clients realize that's part of being your authentic self you can express and be weird and be yourself through all this. I did a sound meditation with a client last night where you have to make ‘eh, or oh’ (Eliabeth is making faces to gesture this) I'd make it on faces because she gets really self-conscious, so we're trying to kind of break that and make her make all these weird sounds. We were both laughing so hard and she's ‘this is like a fun intervention'. This doesn't have to be serious as some of the things we do. It's balance. We gotta balance out the two.

Mike: Right

Elizabeth: That's the thing, is there's just so much we have here that's useful in therapy. right whether it be just outside the garden having the animals come and work with us. And there's 30 types of animals. Amazing for every personality of person out there. Yeah, so I think it's just so amazing that we have all these resources here, so I want to just dive into all of them and just see which ones fit which the client and how I can just kind of piece this together and make it so treatment is actually helpful. And it's maybe healing in a different way than they saw it, because healing, with animals and with nature is not what we typically see in this therapy per se right. So it's kind of my goal is to go out of the box and be just creative and just my own way.

Mike: And it sounds as if you're doing it too. It sounds at least as your clients are responding favorably to it as well.

Elizabeth: I think I surprise them sometimes. A kiddo I work with said ‘"And I was having conversation mom,and she said was ‘my therapy as a kid was sitting in a chair across from the therapist in". My client was, ‘isn't that abuse?’ Both me and mom are thinking 'you are seriously lucky man'. So I think kids especially take it for granted what a wonderful place this is to receive therapy because it is just it's magical with all the animals and this piece of property we have it just a really cool special unique place that's already so creative that I feel it just makes me want to be even more creative. 

Mike:  Oh my goodness that's amazing. Well, Elizabeth I think that's all I have for today. Thanks for coming out and sharing some of your perspective on all this.

Elizabeth: My whole goal with this has been to try to go ahead and get people to see another side of therapy and to see how the different pieces can connect together too and I'm hopeful that you know, the people will be able to see and hear the words that you said and go yeah, okay I can see how it could work for me.