The Basics of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Have you ever noticed that spending time with a dog, cat or horse can make you feel calmer, happier and less stressed? For years, the medical community has known that animal companions can have a beneficial effect on our health. According to Prevention, owning a pet may improve your health in the following ways:

  • Reduce depression
  • Relieve stress
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Decrease heart rate
  • Boost the immune system
  • Enhance self-worth

Domestic animals have been used in a therapeutic context in mental health centers, nursing homes and rehab facilities. In addiction treatment, animal-assisted therapy has had a profound impact on the effectiveness of drug rehabilitation. Recovering addicts who are struggling with the effects of trauma, emotional disturbances or mental illness have found hope and fulfillment through their work with animals. If you’re searching for an integrated rehabilitation program for yourself or someone you love, consider the benefits of animal-assisted therapy as part of your treatment program.

How Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) Works

Animal assisted therapy has had positive results in the treatment of a wide range of conditions, from post-traumatic stress disorder in abused children to dementia in elderly adults. In drug rehab facilities, AAT is integrated into treatment through interactive sessions between therapy animals and clients in recovery. Therapy often takes place in a group, which is facilitated by a practitioner who is licensed or certified in AAT.

Therapy sessions may involve:

  • Establishing a relationship with a horse, dog or other therapy animal
  • Grooming and caring for the animal
  • Learning to communicate with the animal using verbal or non-verbal cues
  • Riding (in the case of horses) or training sessions
  • Interacting with other human group members as part of the session

equine therapyWhen you enter a rehab program, you’re likely to be scared, distrustful and wary. You may have used drugs or alcohol to mask the effects of emotional pain or psychological trauma for years. While you were drinking or using, you may have lost the ability to relate to other people on an open, honest basis. AAT can help recovering addicts overcome their fears and emotional blocks by building trust with animals.

A study conducted by the Seton Health System’s Addictions Services in Troy, New York found that clients who participated in AAT sessions with rescue dogs gained insight into their interactions with others, increased their sense of self-esteem and gained practice at nurturing another creature. Through their work with these animals, who had been carefully screened and trained, clients built trust and got to know themselves better in a safe, non-judgmental setting.

Not every rehab facility offers AAT. Treatment centers that provide this service are open to creative ideas and willing to explore new recovery resources in order to help their clients heal. When combined with one-on-one addiction counseling, support groups, medication therapy and other conventional services, animal-assisted therapy can be a valuable component of a comprehensive addiction treatment program.

Goals of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Counseling and support group meetings aren’t always enough to help an addict or alcoholic get clean and sober. Many rehab clients have difficulty overcoming their own denial or hostility when they get into treatment. Sitting face-to-face with a counselor or a group of other addicts, they may feel resentful and wonder why they’re in rehab in the first place. If they’ve been persuaded to go to rehab as a result of an intervention or court order, they may feel that they’re just marking time until they can get out and use again.

Animal-assisted therapy touches recovering addicts at a deep emotional level — a level that human therapists can’t always reach. The goals of AAT will vary from one client to another, but some of the most common objectives include:

  • Building a rapport with another living being
  • Experiencing a sense of security and trust in an animal’s presence
  • Increasing self-confidence through learning new skills
  • Developing a sense of responsibility by caring for a therapy animal
  • Learning how to handle emotions that would ordinarily cause pain, fear or anger
  • Practicing communication skills in a non-threatening environment

animal assisted therapyIn many ways, working with horses or dogs is similar to interacting with people. Therapy animals have needs to address and moods to consider. They respond to positive attention with affection, and become defensive or distrustful if they’re abused. By learning how to interact with a therapy animal, the addict can learn important lessons about how to deal with family, friends or coworkers in the world outside of rehab.

For many people in rehab, a relationship with a therapy animal may represent one of the few times they’ve experienced an unconditional emotional attachment. Addicts are often the victims of violence, emotional abuse and manipulation in their relationships with other people. They may live in a world where affection is used as a tool to gain access to drugs or alcohol and where abuse and disrespect are commonplace. Before entering rehab, they may have reached the point where they were isolated by their addiction, with no friends or family members to rely on.

Developing a positive relationship with a therapy animal creates a sense of hope that unconditional love really is possible. Experiencing a bond with a therapy dog or a horse enhances the client’s sense of self-worth and builds the foundation for strong, authentic relationships with other people. According to the journal Psychiatric Services, animal-assisted therapy an also reduce anxiety levels in people with mood disturbances or other psychiatric disorders. In a rehab setting, AAT can prove extremely useful at treating clients who suffer from anxiety, depression or a personality disorder in addition to addiction.

Finding an AAT Program

You can find AAT programs at drug rehabilitation facilities, mental health centers, camps, schools, hospitals and many other locations. In residential addiction treatment facilities, AAT sessions may be provided on site or in a location near the facility. Equine-assisted therapy, which involves the use of horses in rehab, may take place on a riding trail, at a stable or in a corral.

The use of animals in therapy and service is a time-honored tradition, and several major national organizations have formed to support this practice. The Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA) and the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International are two of the top organizations representing animal-assisted therapy. These organizations promote the use of equine-assisted therapies to facilitate healing and improve quality of life throughout the world. Pet Partners is a non-profit group that offers information, education and referrals to people who are interested in using AAT to enrich their lives.

Animal-assisted therapy programs are incorporated into treatment at the top rehab facilities in the country. Look for a facility that has a holistic approach to rehab, promoting healing for the entire person instead of focusing exclusively on the addiction. Many of these facilities also offer other alternative modalities, like expressive therapy, acupuncture, massage, biofeedback or hypnotherapy, in addition to the more conventional approaches to treatment.

At Axis, we provide care that touches every aspect of your life, from your physical health to your emotional and psychological growth. Our goal is to help you lead a more fulfilling, healthy life in sobriety using a variety of effective recovery tools. If you have questions about our rehab programs in general or animal-assisted therapy in particular, give us a call. Our counselors can provide confidential answers to your questions about the recovery process.