January 25, 2021
The 3 Agendas of the Triangle Model of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)
I recently read an article entitled “What Horses Teach Us About Systemic Oppression” by Julia Alexander and it resonated with me in regard to this article about the ‘3 agendas in AAT’ that I have been wanting to write for some time now.
Funnily enough, I was going to write the article yesterday, but it was a freezing cold -26 degrees here in Northern Alberta and so my own agenda morphed into having to catch and blanket the horses rather than write about them. It was after I chased them around trying to convince them that the blanket was a good thing that I then came back and saw that article and I had to laugh out loud. Here, I was going to write about respecting the animals in AAT and the importance of being fully aware of the fact that they have their agenda which is not your agenda or your client’s agenda. I was going to write about how we need to ethically ensure we are considering all 3 agendas in the work and to not be allowing our human agendas to lead the session against the animal’s will. And then I chased my mini donkey around the property and finally half lassoed him to get his blanket on. I gave up on my Shetland pony and my Connemara because they refused to be caught and so I allowed them to make the choice to not wear a blanket although it was going to be steep -30’s overnight – so who did I do the right thing by?
Did I do the right thing by the donkey I forced to wear his blanket or by the two horses I allowed to refuse to wear them simply because I gave up trying? I guess if we think about systemic oppression, it does not apply to forcing someone to do something that is for his own good or to do something that he will not decide to do on his own but could be a matter of his life or death, if he is in your care.
When I think of this in the context of AAT, I think of it on two levels: One level includes the need to ‘force’ an animal to undergo things s/he may not like or want to do to ensure his/her health and wellness and the other level is regarding the agendas that we have as therapists and clients in the medium of AAT. Part of the reason we have to maintenance animals in our care is because they are in our care, simply put. When we bring animals into our AAT practices, we become their advocates, their providers, their ambassadors and we are responsible for all tenets of their welfare. If we do not catch them to trim their feet, do health and wellness checks, give vaccines or medications and/or first aid when needed, then we are not meeting our ethical obligation to care for them. But what if they just don’t want to work the day your client chooses them in your AAT practice? What if their health and welfare is not at stake and it is more of a mood or a choice to do something else that is influencing their refusal to be part of your session? Are they allowed to say no?
This is where the 3 agendas come in and also possibly animal oppression. Let’s do this through an example:
Josh is attending therapy because his mother died and his father is hoping he can express his feelings through working with your horses. Josh has been to traditional therapy and many counselling practices but the mediums have not been effective to get him to open up to anyone yet. Josh is an avid animal lover and his father is hoping that by working with the animals, Josh will be more comfortable and the AAT psychologist who specializes in grief work can help him to process his deep grief.
You are that therapist and you have a horse who is very quiet and gentle by nature. Josh has no experience working with horses and this horse would be perfect for him to begin sessions with. Josh is very excited to brush this horse. When you and Josh go toward the horse, it turns and walks away, indicating that it may not wish to be caught. Here are 3 possible agendas at play: 1. Your agenda is to build rapport with Josh through working with your horse, 2. Josh’s agenda is to brush the horse, 3. The horse’s agenda is to go for a walk, likely toward the food and without you or Josh. What is the best ethical approach to helping Josh in this moment?
There are many ethical options. First off, you could address the horse’s behavior in the context of the horse being a sentient being and having her own thoughts, feelings, wants and needs. You can ask Josh what he thinks you both should do. This would give you a good indication of Josh’s awareness, understanding and depth of empathy; his ability to problem solve; the level of his frustration tolerance and many more important social skills. In doing this, you would be meeting your agenda, which is to build rapport and get to know Josh and you would be meeting the horse’s agenda, as she gets to go off and eat but you wouldn’t be meeting Josh’s agenda as he wanted to brush the horse. Secondly, you could catch the horse and bring her back to brush her, meeting both yours and Josh’s agendas but not the horse’s.
So how can you meet the 3 agendas? Let’s say that the horse was going toward the food. Perhaps you can suggest to Josh that he get some food to offer her to see if she will choose to be with him rather than out in the pasture? If she does, then she gets to eat while you teach Josh to brush her and build rapport. All 3 agendas will have been met!
As a psychologist who has been working in the medium of AAT for 18 years and who offers a certification in AAT and Animal Assisted Wellness (AAW) to helping professionals, it is my professional opinion that we should always be striving to meet the 3 agendas when working with animals in practice. When we partner with animals, we are partnering with a helper in our work who has their own thoughts, feelings, wants and needs and we need to notice these, honor them and meet them as much as is possible and at all times. It is not ethical to not consider our animal’s preferences, likes or dislikes when we are working with them and it is not ethical to not drop our agenda or convince our client to drop theirs if our agendas are disrespecting or dishonoring the agendas of our animals.
I might go so far as to say, now that I read Ms. Alexander’s article, that we may be ‘oppressing’ our horse or therapy animals if we ‘force’ them to do what we want them to do in AAT whether it be because of our personal agenda of that of our client. It is true that horses easily bend to our will when we really want them to or when we behave in certain ways. In fact, in AAT, we are often bigger than many species of animals and we can ‘force’ them to meet our agendas as well if we are so inclined.
It is true that there are ways to get our animals to want to comply with our agendas but often, we have to work harder to ensure this is actually done or we have to ‘give in’ to their agenda in some cases. There are many people who have much pre-knowledge of working with animals before partnering with them in professional AAT practice. It is our due diligence to ensure that we are checking in on our thoughts, beliefs and values of animals before we practice with them and during every single AAT session that we conduct as there is a very good chance that our preconceived notions and pre-lived experiences will be influencing our decisions for what is happening as per our agenda or the agenda of the session. If in fact, we are moving ahead with our human agendas without consideration for our therapy animals’ agendas, then we are very most likely practicing animal oppression rather than animal assisted therapy.
Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy www.dreamcatcherassociation.com