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Therapy

Is Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy Right for You?

Three factors to help you decide.

Key points

  • Animal-assisted psychotherapy (AAP) leverages the human-animal bond to help people achieve their counseling goals.
  • Interaction with friendly dogs causes the release of hormones that generate feelings of warmth and attachment.
  • Evaluating one's personal comfort with animals, activity level, and ability to trust can help one decide whether to try AAP.

Animal-assisted psychotherapy (AAP) is a clinical modality in which mental health providers leverage the principles of the human-animal bond to facilitate positive change in their clients and help them achieve their treatment goals. Clients of any age may quickly build rapport, trust, social skills, and self-confidence when a therapy animal is included in their care.

The human-animal-bond refers to the deeply satisfying emotional connections between humans and other animals. These bonds offer social, emotional, and physiological benefits. One study found increased levels of oxytocin and dopamine in dogs and humans after they spent time together (Odendaal, 2000). Oxytocin and dopamine are neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, that are sometimes referred to as “happy hormones” because they generate feelings of warmth, attachment, and trust. The human subjects in Odendaal’s study also experienced significant reductions in blood pressure and cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, after interacting with the dogs. This biological evidence supports what every pet parent already knows: Our relationships with pets and other friendly animals help us feel loved, relaxed, and secure.

Registered therapy dogs range from the tiny teacup Chihuahua to the giant mastiff and every size and breed in between. They are appropriate for work if they are reliably quiet, gentle, and friendly, have successfully passed formal obedience and temperament evaluations, and appear content while interacting with clients. Therapists specializing in AAP typically train their dogs for several years and volunteer with them in schools, libraries, and hospitals to prepare them to work as helpers in counseling.

Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy Activities

Animal-assisted interventions in psychotherapy often involve physical movement and always support the client’s personalized treatment goals. For example, if you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and struggle with restlessness and poor organizational planning skills, you might spend part of your therapy session teaching the dog a new trick. This engaging activity provides a healthy outlet for excess energy while improving your ability to break a complex task into its smaller component parts. You’re practicing sequential skills, such as organizing and completing tasks in a logical order, when you teach the dog to wave, spin, or jump a hurdle. Similarly, if you’ve been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and struggle with apathy, you might spend part of your session leading the therapy dog in a short walk to promote goal-directed behavior, reinforce task persistence, and increase your physical activity level. All these interventions support recovery from depression.

Animal-assisted activities can be a helpful adjunct to traditional psychotherapy, but they’re not suitable for everyone. Here are three critical factors to help you decide if AAP could help you achieve your counseling goals.

Comfort Level

AAP might be right for you if you enjoy interacting with friendly, well-behaved dogs, you are unfussed by dog hair on your clothes, and your cultural and religious customs permit you to touch, care for, and engage with canines. You’re likely to be a strong candidate if you’re in good physical health and don’t have allergies to canine saliva or dander.

On the other hand, it might not be a good fit if you’re frightened of dogs, dislike them, or consider them unclean due to your personal or faith-based beliefs or cultural norms. You should consult your doctor before participating in AAP if you are allergic to animals, medically fragile, or susceptible to zoonotic diseases that are transmissible between dogs and humans. Finally, AAP is inappropriate if you abused animals or people in the past and do not yet have reliable control over your impulses and behavior.

Prior abuse of animals or people does not permanently disqualify you from participating in animal-assisted therapy, but it’s vital that you tell your therapist about this part of your history so you can work on those issues in treatment. You and the therapist can decide together if and when AAP might be helpful to your personal growth and recovery.

Activity Level

Animal-assisted therapy often involves some physical activity, but this isn’t absolutely required; some AAP sessions include nothing more strenuous than cuddling or petting a friendly dog. Depending on your needs and preferences, you might have the chance to groom the dog, play with it, train it, or lead it on a walk inside or outside the office.

Each activity with the dog is designed to catalyze and strengthen your therapeutic work and support the achievement of your treatment goals. For example, if you were abused or neglected in childhood, you might brush the dog while describing your thoughts and feelings about those experiences. You might also reflect on your self-care routines and identify how your current habits are informed and influenced by the care you received when you were small.

Trust Level

To a great extent, the successful outcome of your treatment episode depends on the strength and quality of your therapeutic relationship. This poses a dilemma if you struggle with interpersonal engagement, attachment, and trust. However, AAP remakes the traditional therapist-client dyad into a therapist-dog-client triad, so your interactions with the dog may give you a helpful biological boost in the form of increased oxytocin and dopamine, those feel-good brain chemicals that facilitate emotional warmth and security. After developing an affectionate bond with the therapy dog, you may use that attachment as a bridge to establish trust in the therapist and the therapeutic relationship. Over time, as your capacity for trust grows more robust, it can be generalized to a broader circle of others.

Conclusion

Animal-assisted psychotherapy is rapidly growing in prevalence and popularity. Research support is also expanding, though more information is needed to identify AAP’s most beneficial aspects and mechanisms of effectiveness. The more we learn and understand how AAP helps clients, the more refined, standardized, and professionalized it will become as an intervention. In the meantime, you can evaluate your comfort, activity, and trust levels to decide if it might be right for you.

References

Odendaal, J. (2000). Animal-assisted therapy — magic or medicine? Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49(4), 275–280. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0022-3999(00)00183-5

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