Working through issues of trauma and psychological damage can be prohibitively difficult. The use of specially trained animals can help people learn to develop trust and communication skills with a nonjudgmental companion, eventually leading to deeper levels of recovery.

What Is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Psychology Today explains that animal-assisted therapy is a form of therapeutic intervention (an attempt made to improve the well-being of a person who needs help but cannot or will not accept any) that uses animals. It could include household pets like dogs and cats or other creatures like horses, birds, or even dolphins as part of the treatment plan.

Animal-assisted therapy is not a replacement for traditional therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy. When employed properly, it will complement and enhance the benefits of those traditional therapeutic models.

Research has shown that animal-assisted therapy is a useful intervention in both individuals and groups when certain conditions are met. One study found that patients who had autism, medical conditions, or behavioral issues experienced an improvement in their emotional well-being when participating in sessions where animals were deployed as therapeutic tools. A 2014 review of studies published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that animal-assisted therapy was useful for patients who were struggling with depression and addiction.

For obvious reasons, people who are afraid of certain animals or allergic to animals will not be good candidates for animal-assisted therapy.

How Can Animals Help?

When helpful, animals are used in therapy because they can induce feelings of calm, comfort, companionship, and safety in people who are experiencing stressful mental health events. Additionally, animals can divert attention away from a stressful situation like a panic attack trigger and redirect a person to focus on thought patterns that provide pleasure.

National Geographic writes of how such therapy dogs are used to help the survivors of disasters, such as school shootings, open up in their sessions and confront their trauma in ways they would not otherwise.

If a person develops a bond with a therapy animal, this can help them to improve their sense of self-worth and trust. From here, they can learn how to regulate their emotions and improve their communication and socialization skills.

As Medical News Today explains: “Pets benefit our mental health.”

Dogs In Therapy

The American Counseling Association goes further, explaining that “many counselors have seen the need for language decrease during animal-assisted therapy.” The presence of trained animals allows clients to express themselves in ways other than speech, which may be difficult for them when they have to work through past trauma. Instead, animal-assisted therapy offers increased bonding between client, therapist, and animal, which creates more opportunities for safe and therapeutic interactions that can happen when only human counselors are present.

Dogs are a natural choice of therapy animals. Their deep and undeniable bond with humans goes back thousands of years. As much as they are deployed in the aftermath of disasters, they are also incredibly effective in therapists’ offices.

Therapy dogs are also beneficial to service providers, especially those who have to work with clients who may otherwise be hostile or violent. Per the Journal of Forensic Nursing, therapists offering substance abuse treatment to incarcerated people worked with a therapy dog to develop a safe, trusting, and transparent environment for inmates to engage with treatment.

The St. John Ambulance therapy dog responded “instinctively and effortlessly in its interactions with prisoners,” giving them basic human needs, such as touch and simply happiness, that they were otherwise denied due to their incarceration. At the conclusion of the program, inmates sent the dog and the handlers Christmas and thank you cards.

Horse-Facilitated Therapy

Perhaps a more surprising choice of therapy animal is a horse. A June 2018 study published in the Scientific Reports journal found that horses have a natural observance and response to both verbal and nonverbal cues. Researchers at the University of Tokyo concluded that “horses recognize the emotional states of their caretakers and strangers,” which has led to the therapeutic use of horses for mental health and substance abuse rehabilitation.

Psychology Today writes of how horses’ ability to recognize cues makes them “an emotional mirror for humans.” An angry client will make a horse move away, and an approachable client will make the horse open to petting, feeding, and riding.

This can be used by a therapist to help a client identify and process their feelings in a form of animal-assisted therapy known as equine-assisted therapy. When a client is in addiction recovery, one of the biggest challenges is how to express and use emotions that had been buried by drug and alcohol abuse.

Interactions with the horse provide talking points for the therapist to guide the client in expressing more appropriate emotions, which the horse responds to as a way of positive reinforcement.

Horses are hard work, requiring lots of food, water, cleaning, and other forms of grooming and maintenance. The use of equine-facilitated therapy helps clients pay attention to minute and important details, and participate in activities for the horse’s benefit that do not provide a direct payoff for the client, other than the satisfaction of carrying out a job well done and taking care of another living being.

This can be extrapolated into showing clients how they can work to take care of themselves and their relationships.

Lastly, there is trust. Its sheer size forces the client to put their trust in the horse. In time, the client will learn how to cultivate the horse’s trust and then use that insight to develop stronger interpersonal relationships without the toxicity of substance dependence.

As U.S. News & World Report puts it, “horses help humans heal.”

The Role of the Therapist

What does the therapist do during animal-assisted therapy? The American Counseling Association explains that the therapist’s job is to advocate for the animal, ensuring that it is not harmed or overstimulated during the session. Animals that are certified to be therapy animals come with regulations. They must be given regular breaks, have access to water and an area where they can relieve themselves, and be separated from a client who poses a threat to them. For this reason, they also need space of their own, where they can rest in solitude.

Therapists who use animal-assisted therapy have to be trained in this specialty and must keep their certifications up to date.

Is animal-assisted therapy a legitimate treatment approach for addiction? A large scope of people — men and women, pet owners and non-pet owners, court-ordered clients and otherwise — in treatment for cannabis and methamphetamine abuse reported that they felt a stronger connection with their therapist and the therapeutic processwhen they had therapy sessions with a dog present. The researchers writing the report were confident that “addiction professionals could increase treatment success” by incorporating animal-assisted therapy into their practice.

Animals and the Therapeutic Alliance

This element of animal-assisted therapy has to do with what is known as the therapeutic alliance, which refers to the quality and nature of the interpersonal relationship that develops between the client and the therapist. The existence of such an alliance is key for treatment to be effective. A weak therapeutic alliance, even though nobody’s direct fault, could mean that the client will struggle to apply recovery concepts to their recovery.

But if there is a positive alliance between the client and the therapist, then there is a strong likelihood of the client completing their recommended treatment plan and continuing to enjoy good well-being in their recovery.

The therapeutic alliance is complicated, and many factors can improve or harm it. Using animals properly and appropriately can significantly help.

In 2019, the PLoS One journal wrote that canine-assisted psychotherapy was “associated with positive impacts […] including increased engagement and socialization behaviors,” and clients were less disruptive during their treatment sessions.

Specifically, the careful use of therapy dogs benefited standard treatments to help clients moderate their anxiety and anger.

Overcoming Physiological Challenges

Key to the therapeutic alliance dynamics, clients who received canine-assisted therapy showed improved attendance and retention rates, to the point where researchers concluded that the use of therapy dogs “improved the efficacy of mental health treatments” in qualifying cases.

In another study, researchers wrote that including animals during therapy sessions helps to kick-start verbal communication between the client and therapist, even if the conversation is only about the animal itself. The idea is that this can “accelerate the development of a positive interpersonal relationship,” to the point of boosting the therapeutic alliance in the tricky early sessions.

A big reason for this is that clients tend to trust therapy animals almost immediately, well before they will trust their therapists. But it is through the connection with the therapy animal that the therapist can open the door to greater levels of trust, eventually empowering the client to open up.

As far back as 1984, the Nursing Research journal wrote that therapy animals can greatly reduce the physiological symptoms of anxiety, such as elevated blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate, that patients sometimes experience during treatment sessions. Even the physical sensation of touching the therapy animal can alleviate a patient’s stress and discomfort. Because it is inappropriate and harmful for the patient and therapist to touch each other, the animal acts as a surrogate for both to make the necessary connection.

This is especially the case when the patient is a child or an otherwise vulnerable person. “Animals help children overcome challenges,” in the words of the Child Mind Institute. Researchers writing in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing wrote of how young patients showed marked physiological improvement when working with a companion animal during therapy sessions.

Deploying a therapy animal gives the client the space and time to initiate contact, usually by gently stroking or hugging the animal. Letting the client do this on their terms induces the least discomfort in the person, which the animal will then respond to. With the therapist’s guidance, this can be expanded to eventually address the issues that precipitated the substance abuse.

Conditions And Regulations

Animal-assisted therapy is a legitimate form of treatment, but it comes with certain conditions.

  • Counselors must be able to train the therapy animal to behave in a professionally appropriate way and to follow commands immediately.
  • The animal’s certifications have to be updated and valid.
  • The facility or counseling environment must be appropriate for the needs of the animal.
  • Facility and program staff have to be aware of the presence and function of animals in the facility.
  • The therapist has to evaluate which clients will benefit from animal-assisted therapy and determine when it is in the animal’s and the client’s best interests to not work together.

Ultimately, it is the therapist who is responsible for ensuring the safety of both the client and the companion animal. An injury to either can be grounds for litigation. Much of that assurance will be done before the animal and the client meet, if they ever do.

Is Animal-Assisted Therapy Legitimate?

Animal-assisted therapy is not for everyone or every animal. For all the problems it can help with, a bad pairing can lead to more concerns for both the client and the animal.

But for people who love animals or who respond well to animals, animal-assisted therapy can be a very effective method of building the therapeutic alliance and opening up deeper dimensions of healing and recovery. Frontiers in Psychology wrote of the “psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions,” and NPRwrote of how “abused wolves and troubled teens find solace in each other.”

With the careful guidance of a therapist, animal-assisted therapy can be a vital benefit for a person in addiction or trauma recovery.

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