Animal Assisted Therapy
Benefits of Animal-Assisted TherapyBy BRANDI-ANN UYEMURA
Animal-assisted therapy can also help individuals develop social skills. AAT helps clients realize behavioral cues practiced with a therapy animal can be “use(d) beyond the 45 minutes that they are with the animal and apply this skill to other settings whether it’s getting along with their peers or talking to their counselor.”
The relationship between therapy animals and the therapist can also be a model for a healthy relationship. For example, Chandler says that clients gain information about how to form and maintain relationships and trust by watching how a therapist responds to the animal and the animal responds to the therapist. “The therapist and the therapy animal, their interactions, their relationships serves as a good model for client that helps the client feel safer in a session.”
The presence of animals themselves is soothing and can more quickly build rapport between therapist and client. In addition, therapy animals, especially horses and dogs, have built-in survival skills. That makes them able to pick up social cues imperative to human relationships. Therapists then can process that information and use it to help clients see how their behavior affects others. And they can do this in an immediate way.
But though the research may be sparse, Chandler says the research is out there and has been increasing since 2002. She cites one study, for example, that showed a significant drop in stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and aldosterone and an increase in “health inducing and social inducing” hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins after 20 minutes with a therapy dog. Working with a therapy animal has also resulted in behavioral improvement in children and a reduction in depression for elderly with dementia. To her, the research speaks for itself. “There is actually a psycho-physiological, emotional and physical (component) to interacting with a therapy animal.” And the key that links all of these positive benefits comes down to oxytocin. In addition to lowering blood pressure and heart rate, it is a powerful healing mechanism. “Oxytocin is one of the best, most powerful, wonderful, healthy social hormones we have and it’s the one that’s the most grossly affected in a positive way through human-animal interaction.” She says animal-assisted therapy is here to stay simply because the oxytocin effect is undeniable.
Therapy animals have also returned the positive benefits of touch to counseling. Touch has been understandably removed from therapy, especially with counseling youth, but at a cost. Therapy animals also provide a purely nonjudgmental space for individuals to work out their problems. Chandler says, “Animals do not prejudge you. They don’t know that you’ve had a divorce. They don’t know that you’re dealing with sexual abuse.” Sometimes it’s petting an animal itself or their ability to teach us in the present moment what we find too difficult to learn on our own. But it’s also the sheer presence of an animal, their acceptance and admirable ability to express themselves without holding anything back that makes animal-assisted therapy so powerful. McCullough says it best. “They accept you for the way you are flaws and all. They are so forgiving and they are always happy to see you. Their behavior is just so consistent and so consistently happy that I think it’s just comforting to people knowing that there is a being there that you can always count to be happy to see you and not judge you for anything you’ve done.”