So, What Exactly is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

TALES BLOG / So, What Exactly is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

As Hand in Paw's new Director of Communications, I'm eager to learn all there is to know about Animal-Assisted Therapy!

Before we start, I'd like to properly introduce myself to the Hand in Paw community. I'm Michael Hansen, and I recently joined the HIP team as the Director of Communications. I succeeded Brittany Filby, who held this role for the past six years. Prior to joining HIP, I spent nearly eight years as the Executive Director of GASP, a local nonprofit known as the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution. I left that position last year to take a break and focus on my family, and joining HIP has been a very pawsitive experience so far. 

I am a huge animal lover. I always have been and I always will be. That's my dog Hugo and me, pictured above, at the Hand in Paw office preparing for Mutt Strut. He's about as sweet as can be, but he's not a Hand in Paw Therapy Dog. Well, not yet at least! You can read more about me on our staff page.

OK, let's get into it! I first learned about Hand in Paw around thirteen years ago when the office was located in the Five Points South neighborhood. I was captivated by the organization's mission, but at the time, I didn't have the opportunity to volunteer. Nevertheless, Hand in Paw left a lasting impression on me and earned my utmost respect and admiration.

Now that I'm part of the team, I'm fully immersed in the world of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) jargon and cheesy dog puns — which I absolutely love! Naturally, one of the first things I did upon joining was to delve deeper into researching AAT and related animal interventions. I've also accompanied Stephanie and the Therapy Teams on several visits to firsthand witness our programs in action. What I've learned has been truly inspiring!

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

In simple terms, AAT is an intervention, often combined with traditional health treatments, aimed at improving human health and well-being using animals such as dogs, cats, and horses. AAT is more structured than other interventions like Animal-Assisted Education (AAE) and Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA). However, they all share a common goal of using animals to bring hope and healing to humans.

All these animal-assisted interventions, from formal therapy to informal activities, are rooted in science. Research demonstrates that when humans interact with animals, it can help reduce their blood pressure, lower stress hormone levels (e.g., cortisol), and decrease heart rate, among other positive effects. The benefits of animal interaction extend beyond physical health to encompass emotional, mental, and cognitive well-being. Animal-assisted interventions can help alleviate stress, enhance skills (such as literacy), improve mood, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Furthermore, it has been shown to be an effective complement to traditional therapy for individuals living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The list of benefits appears to be endless.

How Do I Volunteer?

At Hand in Paw, we are always seeking and training volunteers, with the most critical need being for Therapy Teams, which comprise a human handler and their pet. (There are plenty of volunteer opportunities for individuals without pets or for those whose pets aren't suitable for AAT!)

The process begins with a prospective Therapy Team filling out a volunteer application. Your dog does have to have a certificate of completion of a basic group obedience class. Luckily, cats don't have to do this! They then undergo an initial screening to ensure the pet is ready to begin the training process. If the pet is ready, they proceed to a professional training process to learn what it takes to become a Therapy Team.

Following the training workshops, the pair undergoes a practice evaluation, during which the dogs must demonstrate their new skills. We ensure that they remain calm in stressful environments, do not react to distractions such as loud noises or medical equipment, can connect with people, and show no signs of aggression toward humans or other animals. If all goes well, they advance to the final evaluation.

Once the duo completes the training workshops and passes their final evaluation, they officially become a Therapy Team! The next step is for the human handler to shadow an active Therapy Team on at least two visits to observe it in action. Subsequently, they attend a New Team Orientation to review important policies and procedures for Therapy Team visits. These visits span from offices and hospitals to schools and universities, from law enforcement agencies and courts to nursing homes and assisted-living communities. These various locations are referred to as "Program Partners."

In my first couple of weeks on the job, I photographed Darcy (pictured above) and her handler, Jennifer, at the VA Medical Center in Birmingham where they've been visiting for nearly a year.

Since taking on this role, I've learned that certain visits, such as hospitals, require more rigorous training before Teams can begin visits. This is due to the highly stressful environments of hospitals and the regulations that hospitals must adhere to in order to ensure the safety and well-being of their patients, staff, and guests. In some cases, the Program Partner has its own vetting process that the Team must also complete, in addition to the HIP training and evaluation process. We call these "Advanced Visits." In other words, this is serious business!

We currently have over 90 Therapy Teams and more than 90 program partners in the greater Birmingham and Tuscaloosa area. All our program services are provided free of charge to the community. Since joining the team, I've encountered countless heartwarming — and frankly, heartbreaking — stories. The work that these teams do is truly inspiring. Maybe someday Hugo and I can join the ranks of these revered dogs and their human handlers!

To wrap things up, Animal-Assisted Therapy is a vital service helping improve the health and wellbeing of folks of all ages all across the planet. As awareness of AAT increases, so does the demand for Hand in Paw's services. If you are interested in becoming a Hand in Paw Therapy Team, please visit or email Stephanie Stoltzner at

This article was written by Michael Hansen