Ask the Expert: Dr. Tanya K. Bailey of the University of Minnesota Boynton Health’s PAWS (Pet Away Worry & Stress) Program

We feature an expert in the mental health and substance use disorder field to answer questions. This issue we talk to Dr. Tanya K. Bailey of the University of Minnesota and her work studying the healing connection between humans, animals, and nature

What is the nature of the relationship between people and animals?

The lives of animals and humans have been intertwined for millennia, and while many relationships with animals have been to their detriment, human civilization would not be as advanced without their contributions and sacrifices. One of the earliest accounts in the Western world of humans interacting with animals for mental well-being dates to the 9th century in Gheel, Belgium. Individuals deemed as “handicapped” were cared for on farms, not institutions, where they worked with and learned about the daily living needs of farm animals. However, it’s only in the later part of the 20th century did human healthcare providers, researchers, and educators start to recognize that these human-animal interactions were deeply therapeutic for the body, mind, and soul. One explanation for why humans seek out interactions with animals is called Biophilia, a term psychoanalyst Erich Fromm first introduced in The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil and has been popularized by Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson. Biophilia is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. In other words, humans have a deep affiliation with nature. Wilson posits that humans are hard-wired for connection and engagement with the natural world including animals and other living organisms, and to divorce ourselves from our environment is to invite dis-ease and disruption.

What do Animal Assisted Interactions (AAI) consist of?

The discipline known as Anthrozoology helped develop and define what is commonly known as the Human-Animal Bond (HAB) or Human-Animal Interactions (HAI) and out of these foundational structures grew a professional modality called Animal-Assisted Interactions (AAI). I define AAI as an active partnership with human practitioners and specially selected animals, both have received training, and together as a team provide the purposeful delivery of direct and measurable therapeutic and educational services for human learning and well-being.

Programs and services that feature AAI can be found in a wide variety of settings with a numerous variety of domestic animal species to support a range of human biopsychosocial conditions. During the 1960s and 1970s, AAI was focused on populations with health challenges and the elderly; these programs were and continue to be part of activity rosters in many hospitals and eldercare facilities across the United States. As the field has continued to progress, AAI can be found in schools, libraries, physical and occupational therapy clinics, trauma recovery units, courthouses, residential treatment facilities, disaster recovery zones, airports, prisons, individual or group therapy programs, and college campuses. The most common species in programs that offer AAI are dogs and equines. In general, domestic and farm animals such as cats, birds, guinea pigs, rabbits, llamas, sheep, goats, and pigs are also involved but to a lesser extent.

Can you describe the PACE Model™ for Animal-Assisted Interactions?

I often say, “In the simplicity is the power,” because AAI can appear to be as basic as humans and animals coming together in a facilitated fashion, yet when this outer layer is pulled away, what is revealed is much deeper and multifaceted. Depending on the audience, AAI can almost seem like speaking or living out another language because working with a horse and a group of teenagers differs profoundly in program planning, application, and appearance than a person visiting an eldercare facility with a rabbit.

I created the PACE Model for AAI to holistically illustrate that the four main components in every AAI session—practitioner, animal, client, and environment—share a reciprocal dynamic that is greater than the sum of the parts. When combined, these four components set the pace for all AAI programs because each piece of the experience can be independently examined, all interactions can be assessed, and the most ideal or safest combination to produce the highest possible outcomes can be selected. The significance of such interrelationality serves to challenge the status quo that humans are the sole consumers or directors of AAI. In this way, the PACE Model for AAI invites new ways of knowing and honors the environment and animals as unique beings, not “tools” that are discounted or underappreciated in the name and service of human well-being.

One strength of the PACE Model for AAI is that it contributes to and addresses a gap of collaboration in the AAI field. Regardless of a practitioner’s training or style, the animal involved, the client who is receiving services, or the location of the program, the PACE model can serve as a high-level framework for the endless permutations of AAI. A social worker who works with her registered therapy chickens to support college students’ mental health can connect and have immediate familiarity with a registered nurse who oversees a group of human-dog teams that provide AAI on a pediatric oncology department. Identifying a way for diverse AAI methods to come together under one common understanding ultimately adds integrity, accountability, and efficacy to all facets of the profession.

Is AAI different than Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy (AAP) or Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

Technically yes, and this question underscores that the variety and imprecise terms used to describe this practice are one of the biggest obstacles towards its professionalization. First, I consider AAI to be an umbrella term that identifies purposeful activities between humans and animals that have some level of structure and are occurring for an identified outcome, i.e., I direct Boynton Health’s PAWS program at the University of Minnesota which brings together human-animal teams that provide AAI with college students to help promote self-care and stress management. Furthermore, while these sessions are undoubtedly therapeutic, they are not therapy. AAT and several other terms that use “therapy” or “psychotherapy” should only be used when an interaction with an animal is facilitated by a licensed or credentialed therapist or healthcare practitioner who is practicing within the scope of their profession, i.e., psychotherapy, physical therapy, or counseling. Moreover, it is much clearer to identify as a psychotherapist who partners with a dog and this lengthy description is why it can be tempting to simplify things and call it AAT. Terms such as pet therapy or dog therapy are also misleading and no longer used since animals do not give therapy. Furthermore, while certified therapy animal/dog remains a common term throughout the AAI field, programs like Pet Partners® provide registration that the human-animal team have passed all industry requirements. I also prefer to call my animal partner an AAI animal and not a therapy animal/dog because the word therapy is a specific professional term and, if used incorrectly, only serves to continue the confusion for consumers of this field.

Do the animals have to be specially trained?

Yes, and so do the human providers. First, best practices in AAI dictate that the animal which is actively contributing to the session is specially trained to deliver the activities or experiences that will bring about the intended human outcomes. Along with their human partner, the animals in AAI should also have participated in and passed some type of independent screening or evaluation such as the Pet Partners® program, a national organization and industry standard for this field. Second, practitioners have an equal professional and ethical obligation to only practice AAI within the scope of their education and training. For example, while I am a clinical social worker, I have not received additional credentialing in neurodevelopment disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and would not provide therapy or AAI services to individuals with ASD. This scope of practice also extends to the animal in AAI sessions which means the practitioner has extensive knowledge, care, and experience with their animal partner. Competencies in AAI are developed over many years and through many avenues of training and mentorship, not through one dog obedience class or weekend workshop on AAI.

Can AAI help people who are in recovery? (From substance use disorders and mental health disorders) 

If animals bring joy and positive engagement when they are our pets, then perhaps some of these same animals could provide support for people who are in recovery, and indeed, the research literature shows that programs and services which provide AAI have demonstrated a limited yet positive impact on stress, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, chemical addictions, and sense of belonging, to name a few. However, the enthusiastic support garnered by consumer demand, public acceptance, and media hype has left an impression that feeling better can simply be solved with a “pet Rx,” and a robust understanding of if, how, and to what extent these programs are effective remains vastly understudied. What is clear and well-documented in the recovery literature is the importance of the therapeutic alliance. When a skilled human-animal team provides AAI services, the animal can first help give focus and be a calming influence for the person coming to these sessions. Next, animals can provide a social connection or link between participants in a recovery program and staff which then helps finesse the development of rapport, trust, and mentorship. A participant may be uncomfortable sharing intimate details about his or her life to a therapist or teacher but is more willing to have these conversations because the animal is there–an unbiased and accepting source of support. Once a therapeutic alliance has been established, AAI programs can continue to enhance and deepen the healing and recovery process as participants are motivated to learn, interested in attending school or therapy, and are willing to be involved in group activities with others. Finally, because animals live one day at a time, they are ideal role models of living with presence, self-acceptance, and grace.

Does insurance cover the cost of AAI? If not, what are some ways that people can get the benefits?

If a person has a health plan that covers services such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, mental health therapy – and the practitioner includes an animal in these sessions as part of a treatment plan with established goals and measurable outcomes – these services may be covered by insurance. A health savings account (HSA) may also cover expenses associated with AAI sessions if deemed medically necessary by a doctor. Generally, AAI is connected to a qualified medical procedure to be considered for insurance coverage, and one should check with their insurance provider before beginning any type of AAI service.

Many wellness retreats, healthcare centers, and recovery facilities also include AAI in their menu of services such as visits by volunteers who are AAI teams with their dogs or cats, riding horses, hiking with llamas, or spending time with and caring for a flock of chickens. However, I also want to recognize that animals and experiences with animals may not be an appropriate fit for every person and can be seen as a symbol of privilege. In the Twin Cities, we are especially fortunate to have a wealth of registered AAI teams who are primarily all volunteers, and if you ever fly through the Minneapolis airport, you might see some AAI teams helping ease the anxiety of travel. This volunteerism means that many of them also go to a wide range of other settings and facilities in this area.

Are there resources for people who are looking for a professional that specializes in AAI, AAT, or AAP?

Standardization on training in the method of AAI remains a gap in the field so that practitioners in AAI tend to gain hands-on learning through community-based workshops, online materials, or working with a mentor. Any online search will produce thousands of AAI examples, and a conscientious consumer is wise to first interview a professional who includes AAI in their practice. A provider of AAT/P can be expected to be a licensed therapist in the state in which they are practicing and at the minimum, are currently registered with their animal through a program like Pet Partners®. Arguably, all professionals who provide AAI should also be highly trained with their animal partner, and when the animal in AAI sessions is an equine (horse, donkey, mule), there are additional facets of this work that are important to know. A person’s training in horsemanship, years of experience, and where and how the equines are stabled gives a window as to the rigor and competencies, or lack thereof, that a customer or client can expect from these programs.

What other resources can you pass along to our readers? 


Dr. Tanya K. Bailey (she/her), PhD, LICSW, identifies as a straight, cisgender White woman. She received her PhD in social work from the University of Minnesota (UMN) and is a licensed clinical social worker, educator, and researcher with over 30 years’ of specializing in the healing connection between humans, animals, and nature. She is the Animal-Assisted Interactions (AAI) Program Coordinator at UMN and in 2013, created Boynton Health’s PAWS program, a multi-species AAI program offered four days per week on campus and delivered by over 100 volunteer therapy animal teams.

Her experiences include directing one of the first therapeutic farms in the Twin Cities; she is a co-author of AAI education, activity, and curriculum manuals to fill a need when the AAI field was expanding; a Pet Partners® evaluator and therapy animal team member; an EFMHA board member; and an equine specialist in mental health and learning with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH, Int’l). She is also a multi-species AAI practitioner – dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, chickens, goats, sheep, guinea pigs, llamas – and currently works with three registered therapy chickens – Tilly, Henley, and Hennifer.

She is the Principal Investigator of a 7-year longitudinal study on campus-based AAI programs and continues to study the role these programs have for students’ sense of belonging and resilience. She created and teaches graduate courses in AAI at UMN and has presented extensively nationally and internationally.

In 2016, she was diagnosed with cancer and credits the love from her husband Peter and her daily interactions in nature, time being with her horse, and tending to her chickens as instrumental in her healing and positive mindset. She can be reached at tanya@umn.edu.

Last Updated on May 13, 2022

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