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Dr. Strayer with her arm on her dog Dooli

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Hello!  Let me introduce myself and then share the purpose of this article.  I am Dr. Christina Strayer. I am the Instructor for the Telehealth Certification Institute’s Animal Assisted Therapy-Interventionist credential.   As a person who has witnessed over and over the power of our connection with animals through the human-animal bond, I fell in love with the AAT field in the 1990s as I researched ways, while attending Radford University, to reach out to at-risk-youth and help them develop empathy, increase self-esteem and find purpose.  I found the early work of Boris Levinson in his book, Pet Oriented Psychotherapy, and was fascinated by his case studies of how his pet dog, Jingles, prompted his clients to feel safe and explore their treatment goals in a fun, effective way. He had one young client who was diagnosed with selective mutism that began to talk to Jingles for the first time in session!  I was sold!  

What exactly is AAT?.....

Animal Assisted Therapy consists of structured and unstructured interventions based on the power of the human-animal bond, directed by a licensed professional with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes based on AAT competencies, and a trained therapy animal to guide and assist clients in reaching their treatment goals.

How can it help my clients?.....

While working on my doctoral dissertation, I visited a local shelter and found a 4 year old English Bulldog/Boxer mix that I named Dooli (which means shy hero).  His name suited him well, although he came out of his shell and was not so shy once he was settled in!  He obtained his Canine Good Citizen certification and became a certified Therapy Dog through a local organization.  Dooli and I completed my doctoral dissertation together with a youth at risk, and the outcomes obtained with pre/post valid instruments showed significant positive results: an increase in empathy, improved grades, and reduced aggression!  

There are a myriad of benefits of AAT!  Being in the presence of animals benefits us physically, psychologically, and physiologically.  Epidemiological studies have proven animals help reduce our cortisol, heart disease risk, blood pressure, anxiety, depression, etc., and increase our endorphins, oxytocin, positive outlook, and more! (Fine, 2015).

How do I start my AAT-I journey?.....

Just like reaching any other goal, becoming an Animal Assisted Therapist Interventionist (AAT-I ) is a journey for you and your animal. The AAT-I program teaches humans the functionality of their role and the steps necessary to secure/find training for their animal to become a certified therapy animal. My journey has been well worthwhile and life-changing for clients, myself, and my therapy animals over the decades.  Yes, animals, plural! I have worked over the decades with clients alongside my birds, dogs, cats, horses, goats, and even my dear hermit crab, Superman!   

My mission became to share the healing power of AAT and teach an AAT credentialing program for the human services field that would guide people to ethically and responsibly learn the what, why, and how of AAT.  It became my passion to ensure other professionals had clear guidance and support in navigating their journey to becoming an AAT-I.  The AAT-I certification program the Telehealthcertification Institute offers is research-based, includes the latest studies in the AAT field, and teaches you step-by-step how to reach your optimal potential and develop a clear path to your goal of becoming an AAT-I.  Once the human is trained in our course and the therapy animal receives their specific training needed, you will be ready to work with the populations of your choice to effect positive change, support, and healing for others in unique, memorable, and productive ways!

There are other programs in the field you can choose.  My advice is to ensure they offer CEUs, are based on the AAT competencies, and offer you flexible learning options to fit your lifestyle.  I sincerely hope the animals and I can connect with you in the program either online or in person at an experiential training here in North Carolina!


We welcome guest columnist Christina Strayer.  Dr. Strayer is the creator and instructor for TCI's Animal Assisted Therapy Interventionist (AAT-I) Credential.  Christina has also provided courses for the TCI community on Emotional Support Animals and thinking outside of the screen when using telehealth.

About Christina Strayer:

Dr. Christina Strayer, Ed.D, LCMHCS, LCAS-A, AAT-I, CCTP, THTC, CYT-200 is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor and Supervisor, Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialist-Associate, Pet Partner Team Evaluator, Animal Assisted Therapist-Interventionist and Life Coach with her coaching practice E.E.C.H.O. (Education and Energy Coaching with Horses and Others, LLC) in North Carolina.  Her private practice is Animal Assisted Therapy of the Triangle.  She is trained in a variety of Integrative Therapies including Art, Yoga and Mindfulness. Her theoretical approach is Client-centered and Holistic. Along with her mini goats, avian, equine, canine and crustacean helpers, Christina combines her study of the power of the Human and Animal Bond in healing with proven counseling theories and techniques to guide clients in reaching their goals. 

She has a diverse background in counseling and teaching. She is the Lead Instructor for the Animal Assisted Therapy Interventionist (AAT-I) certification course.  She has served as an adjunct professor at Campbell University in the Counselor Education department. She has traveled and conducted AAT seminars for PESI, a national continuing education organization and conducts Seminars/Workshops/Groups locally on a variety of Mental Health/Wellness topics.   She primarily works in the areas of PTSD, Panic Disorder, Crisis Intervention, Compassion Fatigue, Stress, Trauma, Grief and Loss, Anxiety, Addictions, Depression, Goal setting, Consultation, Self-Esteem, Conflict resolution, Social Skills, Team Building and Life Balance/Transitions.

Christina graduated from the Doctoral program in Counselor Education and Supervision through Argosy University in Sarasota, FL. She obtained both a Master of Science in Counseling and Human Development with a concentration in K-12 School Counseling and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology from Radford University in Radford, Virginia.  She completed her Doctoral dissertation in AAT with Dooli, a rescue English Bulldog/Boxer mix, who was a dear family member and a beloved therapy dog to many over the years.