The clinical benefits of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has been studied in a variety of physical and mental health conditions. The use of animals in a therapeutic setting can be traced back historically and the first scientific journal article published was published in 1944, titled “The Mental Hygiene of Owning a Dog,” and discussed the beneficial relationship between pets and their owners. Since then, researchers have studied the effects of animals on human health and well being and found that patients who interacted with animals have had positive outcomes for a variety of different health conditions. Therapy animals have started to emerge as a popular supplement to traditional psychotherapy treatment options for mental and behavioral health treatment.
What is Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?
AAT has the goals of “improving human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning” (Delta Society, 2005) and is facilitated by specialists who have been trained to integrate animals into therapy. Dogs are the most common type of animals used in AAT however, other animals include cats, horses, chickens, pigs, llamas and even fish. Therapies that involve horses are often separated into equine-facilitated psychotherapy.
AAT has been successfully used to help patients with mental disorders, depression, illnesses such as cerebral palsy, Alzheimers, heart conditions among others. Studies have shown that interacting with animals can help patients with their anger, aggression, depression and anxiety and has been shown to make patients feel a sense of calmness and happiness. For example, therapy dogs are often utilized in hospital settings to comfort patients and have even been shown to reduce pain and pain symptoms.
In her handbook, Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling, Cynthia Chandler outlines five critical competencies for counselors for AAT:
- Orchestrating a therapy animal to enact appropriate behaviors and comply with appropriate commands;
- Evaluating a facility or counseling environment for appropriateness of AAT
- Networking with facility and program staff regarding the intent and activities of therapy animals working in a facility
- Following facility and program policies and procedures regarding the practice of AAT and establish policies and procedures where none exist;
- evaluating client appropriateness for participation in AAT.
It is important for the counselor to assess the therapy animal to make sure they are well trained and also to assess the appropriateness for using AAT, as this therapy may be contraindicated for patients with animal phobias, patients with allergies to certain animals and patients who may be too aggressive or pose a threat to the therapy animals.
Animal Assisted Therapy(AAT) and Addiction Treatment
The use of AAT has been employed in a variety of health conditions and for mental and behavioral health treatment as a supplemental technique alongside evidence-based therapies to maximize the benefits of substance use disorder treatment. When someone starts treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, there are different types of therapy they are exposed to, including but not limited to behavioral therapies, 12-step programs, holistic therapies such as art therapy, yoga and music therapy. For some, animal assisted therapy with dogs or horses could help to transform the therapeutic experience in a positive way. Studies have shown that working with a therapy animal can help improve the patient-counselor relationship, decrease anxiety, and improve the recovery outcomes of patients.
A common type of animal assisted therapy is canine-assisted therapy, or work with a therapy dog. Having patients interact with dogs during rehab for substance abuse disorder can be helpful because it can help patients open up and feel calmer and more comfortable. Petting dogs and interacting with dogs has been shown to increase the release of hormones that are responsible for making a person feel happy, such as endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin. Patients are also more likely to talk to dogs and open up before opening up to their counselors by bringing dogs into a counseling session, therapy sessions can be more productive. Having patients care for therapy dogs gives them a sense of responsibility and purpose which can help during early recovery. Dogs offer an unconditional love that patients may be longing for and provide non judgmental affection.
Therapy with horses is referred to as equine therapy and there are several different types of equine-assisted therapies that have been used with substance abuse patients. Equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) involves family members and the patients, while equine assisted learning (EAL) focuses on helping patients work on managing their own behavioral and emotional responses through understanding a horse’s responses. Using this method helps a patient to reflect on their own feelings and behaviors since the horse will read and mirror the person’s human emotions. This helps a patient improve their self awareness, personal responsibility and reflect on their social responses. Therapeutic riding can also be used to help develop a patient’s self confidence and self esteem while also exposing the patient to enjoyable and relaxing hobbies that they can enjoy in sobriety. There is also a component of equine-assisted therapy that works on building the responsibility of the patient. By requiring patients to groom, feed and clean up after the horses, patients are given a sense of responsibility. Finally, this arrangement also helps foster the patient-counselor relationship because the counselor is able to use the experiences during equine therapy to process emotions and experiences.
There are many treatment facilities that offer animal assisted therapy as a part of their treatment offerings. If you or your loved one are currently struggling with alcohol or substances, Asana Recovery can help. Contact Asana Recovery or give us a call today at 949-763-3440. Our trained professionals will walk you through the admissions process and make sure all of your questions are answered. The first step is admitting you need help, and is often the hardest. Once you take that first step, there will be a team on your side to help you be successful in your new future.