Dogs have long been touted as “man’s best friend”, and rightfully so. Dogs, cats, and other animals can show acceptance and offer unconditional love while expecting nothing in return. Snuggling up on the couch with a cat, walking a dog, or petting a rabbit can be extremely comforting and can help one to relax, cheer up, or help worries drift away. Animal therapy is an intervention that capitalizes on this principle and seeks to improve an individual’s emotional and mental well being.
Animal therapy is a therapeutic modality that integrates animals into an individual’s mental health treatment. Animal therapy primarily involves dogs, but can also include cats, birds, horses, or any other animal that can relate to a person’s emotional and physical needs. Animal therapy can be conducted individually or with a group of people. An animal may reside in one’s home to provide emotional support, or a person may go to an outside location such as an equestrian school and learn to ride or care for a therapy horse.
Animal therapy is usually done in combination with traditional psychotherapy. An animal therapist can either discuss a person’s experiences after a person has had a session with their therapy animal, or can talk about a person’s experiences while they are actively working with one. Therapy animals may either be obtained from animal shelters or certain breeding programs, the majority of which offer formal training to be certified as a therapy animal.
Animal therapy seeks to provide individuals with reassurance, feelings of security, and a sense of calm. It helps people to improve self confidence, self-esteem, and trust by helping them to develop a bond with an animal. Animal therapy can help a person to improve communication, socialization, and emotional regulation. Animals also serve to direct attention away from a person’s negative or stressful experiences, while replacing it with a pleasurable one.
Animal therapy can be helpful when used in conjunction with various mental health issues. Emotional support animals can be useful for individuals who have PTSD or who have experienced past abuse or trauma. Animals can provide people struggling with past trauma a sense of safety, security, and calm. Animals can also have a direct impact on a person’s physical responses, as it can result in the release of certain chemicals in the brain, reducing blood pressure, and reducing anxiety associated with PTSD. An animal can help a person to alleviate intrusive thoughts while serving as a reminder that they are safe from danger.
Animal therapy can help to relax and calm individuals struggling with ADHD or other impulse control disorders. Animal therapy can help a person to reduce behavioral issues, to reduce hyperactivity, and to improve social skills. Through a sense of calm, a person may also benefit by learning to reduce impulsivity.
Animal therapy is effective with anxiety and depression by helping a person to shift to more pleasant thoughts. Animals can help a person to quiet their mind and to be in the moment with an animal. An animal can help those who are anxious disrupt a stream of negative thoughts, or help a person who is depressed to think about something positive. Animals can bring great joy, helping a person to alleviate their depressive symptoms. Animal therapy can help depressed individuals to reduce their isolation by getting them to interact in public, such as purchasing pet food in a retail store, or through established daily routines, such as taking their dog for a walk.
Perhaps other animals should share in the distinction of being a “man’s best friend”, in addition to a woman’s, or a child’s. Animals can indeed be a person’s best friend in addition to having a positive impact on a person’s mental health and emotional well being.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.