Understanding the Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapies

Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
Churchill was talking about the benefits of horseback riding, but his comment goes deeper than just physical exercise. Being around animals has been shown to be good for the mind too.

Involving animals in various forms of psychological therapy, including programs for substance abuse treatment, can be beneficial for a number of reasons. For those with an affinity for animals, it can make a nerve-wracking experience easier to manage, while for those who have experienced trauma or are unable to verbalize emotions, working with animals can provide a source of confidence and confidentiality. Exploring the various types of animal-assisted therapies opens new ways of helping people deal with mental health disorders that can lead to more positive outcomes and longer-term recovery.

Animals in Therapy

Animals are used in therapy because they can help people relax, minimize stress, and offer a sense of safety and unconditional acceptance that puts therapy patients at ease. As stated by the American Counseling Association, this can help draw withdrawn or noncommunicative patients into conversation and the therapeutic process so they can get the most out of their therapy.

In substance abuse treatment, animals can help people who have trauma or stress in their backgrounds, or who are embarrassed or ashamed of their substance abuse and hesitate to talk about it. They also provide activities through which the individual can be distracted from cravings and triggers. The relief of stress and anxiety through animal-assisted therapy can help these people avoid some triggers to begin with.

History of Animal-Assisted Therapy

According to the journal Annals of Long-Term Care, the therapeutic potential of the relationship between animals and humans was first recognized and explored in the 1800s by Florence Nightingale, who found that pets reduced anxiety in psychiatric patients and children. As early as the 1930s, Freud was known to bring his dog to therapy sessions.

However, it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century that psychotherapists began more deeply exploring the ways in which the human-animal relationship could be used to benefit the therapy process. Finally, in the late 1980s, the first programs to certify animals for therapy arose.

Now, animals can be found in therapeutic programs in a variety of settings, from hospitals, to treatment programs for children with psychiatric issues, to substance abuse programs, and more.

Types of Animal-Assisted Therapy

HorseThere are basically two ways that animals are involved in therapy, as explained by the National Association of Social Workers.

  • Pet therapy is where volunteers take their gentle, trained pets to different settings, like hospitals or schools, to cheer up people who are dealing with difficulty, such as after surgery or during difficult treatments. This type of therapy is simple, providing the gentle joy of being around or petting a happy animal. It is not to be underestimated, however. Relieving stress can help the body produce hormones and neurotransmitters that aid in physical and emotional stability and health.
  • Animal-assisted therapy, on the other hand, involves social workers, counselors, or other therapists who specifically involve the animal in treatment therapies. This type of work can be done with a wide range of animals, but two of the most commonly known therapies using animals involve dogs (canine-assisted therapy) and horses (equine-assisted therapy).

Various Animals, Various Benefits

The two most common animals used in therapy are dogs and horses. Here are just some of the ways they can help:

Canine-assisted therapy

Dogs are used in both pet therapy and animal-assisted therapy. Therapy Dogs United describes some of the benefits of working with dogs:

  • Heightened problem-solving and communication skills by giving the dog commands
  • Learning how to relate to others
  • Improvement in depression or anxiety
  • Greater level of interest and focus
  • More positive attitude and motivation

Equine-assisted therapy

According to information from Psych Central, learning to work with in therapeutic practice can help with:

  • Insight into interpersonal relationships, based on how the person responds to the horse
  • Instant, honest feedback from the animal that helps people moderate their behaviors
  • Models for healthy relationships with others
  • Growth of trust and ability to read nonverbal cues from others

    Research and Effectiveness

    Studies have shown varied levels of effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy. In particular, a research review from Complementary Therapies in Medicine demonstrated that while some studies are generally of low quality, these therapies can be particularly beneficial for people who like and relate to animals. This is verified by various reports, such as one from Current Pain and Headache Reports, which shows that animal-assisted therapy with cancer patients has resulted in reports of lower pain levels, verified clinically by increased levels of endorphins after the animal visit.

    Specifically for treatment of substance abuse, a study from the journal Anthrozoos showed that having a therapy dog involved in the sessions between a therapist and a person in treatment helped make the person in treatment feel more positive about the therapeutic alliance than if there was no dog in the session.

    Because positive attitudes about the treatment process can have a beneficial effect on treatment outcomes, these studies indicate that animal-assisted therapy can be effective in helping to achieve desired outcomes when they are used in the rehab process.

    Why People Love Animals in Therapy

    For people who love animals, it’s easy to see why non-human companions have become so popular in therapy. For scientists and others, however, there is still a question of whether it is worthwhile.

    Based on case studies and anecdotal evidence, including animals in therapy sessions is calming and soothing, and it has helped many people feel more comfortable with and involved in treatment. An example of this is an article from National Public Radio that discusses many of the reasons animals are thought to benefit human health. From increasing the hormone that produces feelings of love and bonding, oxytocin, to helping to reduce stress and blood pressure, the physical and emotional benefits of having animals around have lots of solid scientific evidence behind them.

    Of course, not everyone likes animals, and not everyone might benefit from animal-assisted therapy. But for those who are comfortable and happy in the presence of an animal, having this nonjudgmental, accepting companion along the path to recovery can mean the difference between frustration and hope.

    Finding Animal Therapy Programs

    Happy therapist talking with a rehab group at therapy sessionWhen seeking treatment for substance abuse or other mental health disorders, it can be beneficial to inquire whether or not specific facilities have access to or offer animal therapy, especially for those who have trouble verbalizing with a therapist. For those who might benefit from this type of involvement, making sure that a prospective treatment program includes this alternative therapy can improve the individual’s involvement and increase the chances for a positive outcome.  

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