Animal-Assisted

A quote from the writer Josh Billings is etched the wall of almost every veterinary clinic in the United States. It reads, “A dog is the only thing on Earth that will love you more than you love yourself.” To people who don’t have dogs, or any other pet, the quote may seem ludicrous or even a little extreme. People who do have a connection with pets, however, may find that the quote speaks to the deeper connection between humans and animals. These animal lovers may have a point. Studies suggest that the mere presence of an animal can have a deep and profound impact on the way people feel about their situation, their abilities and the other people in the room. In short, animals may help people come to a deeper understanding, just through their presence.

How They can be the Difference

Since animals have this remarkable ability, they’ve been incorporated into some aspects of medical care. In fact, some interventionists include animals in their intervention programs, and some addiction treatment programs also include animal therapies. Understanding why animals are included in these programs, and what their presence is designed to do, can help families decide if animal-assisted interventions and therapies are right for their family and their situation.
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Animal Assisted TherapyThe Human/Animal Connection

People who adore their animals may provide long, poetic dissertations about how their animals help them deal with stress and move through their lives with a sense of ease. In order to break these poems down into physical or chemical changes that can be measured objectively, instead of deep feelings that can only be experienced subjectively, scientists have performed a series of experiments on the human/animal bond, looking for measurable outcomes that can be directly attributed to the work of an animal. The results of these experiments have been striking.

In one such experiment, as printed in The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interactions: Benefits and Responsibilities, 10 people who owned dogs and 10 people who did not own dogs were asked to submit to psychological testing in a laboratory. This is a situation that most people would consider stressful. The testing was then repeated in the home, which is usually not considered a stressful location. The researchers brought a dog to one of these two sessions. In the stressful laboratory situation, the people who went through testing with a dog present reported much lower levels of stress than the people who went through the testing with no dog present. The changes in stress level did not change between people who had dogs and people who did not have dogs. In addition, during the high-stress situation, test subjects didn’t interact with the dog as much as they did in the low-stress situation. In other words, having the dog present, even when the person didn’t have dogs and didn’t interact overtly with the dog, was enough to reduce stress.

In a similar experiment, people in the hospital for heart failure were split into three groups. One group received standard care, one group received a visit from a volunteer and one group received a visit from a volunteer with a dog. The people who received visits with the dog had greater decreases in blood pressure and stress hormone levels than people who did not receive visits with a dog, according to a summary printed in the American Journal of Critical Care. These visits were only 12 minutes long, yet they delivered true results for these very ill patients.

Helping with Mental Illness

Animals may be able to help people feel more relaxed, and that relaxation may show up in their blood pressure readings and their stress hormone readings, but animals may also help people to feel more communicative, especially if these people have an illness such as:

  • Depression
  • Developmental disorders
  • Autism
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

equine assisted therapy
In one study of the impact of animals on children with developmental disorders, researchers determined that children who were allowed to play with a dog during therapy were more playful, focused and aware of their environments than children who were not given the opportunity to play with a dog, according to results published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research. Having access to a dog seemed to provide these children with the ability to open up, speak out and participate in therapy in ways they were not able to when animals were not present.
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How Animals are Used

In Interventions

Given these study results, it’s easy to see why animals might be included in an intervention program. An addiction intervention, in which a person struggling with addiction is confronted about that addiction by concerned family members and friends, is one of the most stressful situations a person can go through. Old stories of grief and loss might be repeated, over and over, and the addict might be asked to examine unpleasant behaviors in a direct way, and that might be something the person hasn’t done in a very long time. Having an animal in the room might help to significantly reduce stress and anxiety.In addition, an intervention can be thought of as a face-to-face confrontation, and some people choose to shut down on an emotional level during these difficult conversations. Even families who use supportive statements during their interventions are still asking the person to make a series of changes, and they’re using direct words to bring about that change. It can be hard for some people to interact in that way. Animals may be able to help here as well. For example, a study published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing found that having a dog in the room improved communication between the addicts in recovery and the nurse attempting to help those addicts. For some people, the animal works a bit like a buffer. People can pet the animal, avoiding direct eye contact and combativeness, or they can hug and touch the animal when they’re feeling sad, and release those emotions so they can continue to participate in the discussion. Animals provide a source of distraction that can improve communication.There are no set ways in which animals are used in addiction interventions. Some therapists, for example, allow the animal to walk with the person into the intervention and then escort the person out of the intervention. Other therapists keep an animal in the room in the background, allowing the person to interact with the animal only if the person chooses to do so. And other therapists allow the animals to work with all members of the intervention, including the addict as well as the family, depending on the needs of the people in the room. Any of these techniques can be effective.

Ideally, if the animal is to be included in the intervention process, the animal should also be included in the rehearsal and planning stages for the intervention. These rehearsals allow the family to truly prepare for the intervention, and if the animal has a role to play in the intervention, the animal should be involved in the planning too. The animal may be able to diffuse high emotions during the rehearsals as well, providing added value to the families.

Many therapists use dogs in these interventions, but some therapists have found great success with cats, ferrets or other small creatures. The key is to use animals that have the ability to undergo rigorous training and retain the techniques they’re taught. This training allows the animal to behave in a specific way, reducing the danger of injury due to unpredictable animal responses. In other words, these animals are rarely just pets brought in off the street and asked to sit in a room full of people. These are highly trained animals that know to stay in the background, waiting quietly, until they are needed by the people in the room. Then, when they are summoned, they provide quiet and gentle soothing services. If they’re not called, they simply watch the proceedings.

In Therapy

Animals are also used in formal addiction programs, as mentioned, and they may play a similar role here. The animal may live in the treatment facility, providing companionship to people who are recovering from addiction, or the animal may live with the addiction therapist and provide additional support during addiction therapy sessions. In one study of the effectiveness of animals used in this way, 231 people went through 26 sessions for addiction treatment. Some worked with animals and some did not. According to the results, published in the journal Anthrozoos, people who worked with an animal provided higher satisfaction scores of their therapy, compared to people who did not work with an animal as part of their treatment program. Again, simply having an animal in the room seemed to help people feel better about the care they were receiving.Other programs for addiction use animals in a much different way. Here, people in recovery are asked to work with traditional farm animals such as:

  • Horses
  • Goats
  • Cows
  • Sheep

They may be asked to help care for these animals by cleaning up after them, washing them, harnessing them or moving them from place to place. Herd animals like horses and sheep respond, in large part, to body language, and addicts may learn that what they say with their mouths and what they say with their bodies are two very different things when they notice that the animals will not respond to them as requested. Sometimes, however, the animals work simply as touchstones for emotions. People may find comfort through petting the animals, watching them run or talking to them about the deep emotions they’re not quite ready to share with humans.

While working with animals like this may be valuable due to the animals’ basic presence, this sort of work may also have additional benefits. According to a review of the issue as presented in the journal Disability and Rehabilitation, people who work with animals like this may benefit from the idea of working and living a normal life. These farm-related tasks allow people to forget about their illnesses, just for a time, and focus on doing something to help another living being. They accomplish something important in this work, and this might be the first time people have been able to do something so important in a very long time. It can be an important piece on the road to recovery.

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Choosing Animal Therapy

While studies suggest that animals can help people whether they interact with the animals or not, there are some people who actively dislike animals. They may have severe allergies, a history of poor interactions with animals or just a basic distrust of furry creatures. Obviously, these people will not benefit from the inclusion of an animal into the treatment program. In fact, it’s best to ensure that no animals are included in the care these people receive for their addiction, as they may find the presence of animals distracting or distressing.


Therapists who do include animals in therapy should be able to answer these questions from concerned family members before treatment begins:

how animals help in therapy

  • How are animals included in this program?
  • How are the animals trained?
  • How were you trained to handle the animal?
  • Is the animal a certified therapy animal?
  • Have you used animals in this way in the past?
  • Does the use of the animal add to the cost of the program?

In the end, it’s a personal decision whether animals should be included in the intervention or in the addiction treatment program. Their help may be crucial for some people, but others may benefit from more traditional programs. By asking questions, and truly thinking about what’s best for the person in recovery, families can make the right decision on this crucial topic.

If you’d like more information on animal-assisted interventions and therapy, please contact us at the toll-free number listed above. We are here 24/7 to answer your questions.
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