How Does AAI Work?

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First of all, before asking how it works, what is AAI? Those initials stand for Animal-Assisted Intervention, one of the facets of green care or social farming, a new/old therapeutic modality based on the observation that many human problems can be alleviated by close contact with nature. We’re not talking about going out in the yard and waiting to be carried away by a tornado. That would solve some problems, for sure, but it’s a bit extreme. We’re talking about nice, gentle, friendly contact with nature, like when it’s shown that kids who are accompanied by dogs will voluntarily do more healthful physical activity.

This is not a blanket recommendation for every family with an obese child to go out and get a puppy, because a lot of other factors enter the equation. Many overweight and obese children already have dogs. It is possible that, if not for the activity-inspiring presence of a lively pet, some of these young people would be even more overweight.

And while playful dogs are a good addition to the tools available at a residential rehab center, not every household can afford to support a pet. A lot of families live in apartments or other situations where dogs are not allowed. Besides, some overweight kids, or their siblings, have allergies. Dog ownership is no panacea, and not just for the obvious reasons.

Wheels within wheels

Even the researchers who study Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) do not clearly understand its mechanism. The eagerness of a dog to romp outside can provide motivation to get up and move, but it is not, in and of itself, sufficient motivation for a young person to want to escape obesity in the first place. There are complicated layers to the quality we call motivation. It comes in more than one variety. Running around with a puppy is not a motivation at the most basic level. Something else must trigger the desire to redesign the body for optimal health.

People regulate their activities from at least three different starting points, one of which is amotivation, characterized by the absence of intention to engage in an activity. A team from the University of Freiburg in Germany describes two other kinds:

Extrinsic motivation implies that a person engages in the behavior to satisfy an external requirement, to avoid negative feelings or to enhance one’s ego. Intrinsic motivation represents the most powerful type of motivation and refers to engaging in the activity for its own sake.

Where does intrinsic motivation come from? Regardless of its origin, the researchers propose that “a prerequisite for intrinsic motivation is that the behavior is congruent with actual affective preferences stemming from aroused implicit motives.” In other words, despite the benefits that comprise extrinsic motivation, it’s likely that a person will not be truly motivated on the basic level unless she or he finds the activity “inherently enjoyable, interesting, and challenging.”

Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner Kron Gracie recently talked with Joe Rogan about how good it is to live near the beach, because so many different forms of activity are available, and a person who does physical training every day gets very tired of seeing the walls of a gym. This challenge faces everyone who makes the effort to stay in shape. The intrinsic motivation, to achieve optimal health, needs to find appropriately matching extrinsic motivation, in the form of enjoyable, challenging, and interesting activities. Walking a dog, or playing with a dog, may be all of those, but it still does not equal intrinsic motivation.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Dogs motivate obese children for physical activity,”, 10/29/13
Source: “#460 – Kron Gracie,”, 02/24/14
Image by Michael Dorausch


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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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