Animal-Assisted Therapy

animal assisted therapy in southfield mi counseling center

Dogs may be trained to do jobs for people by guiding the blind, alerting a person who seizures, detecting illegal substances at the airport or even detecting bombs but what about being present as a person seeks psychological counseling?  Petting a dog or interacting with an animal has been proven to have a calming, soothing effect – especially on children. Many research studies have documented the benefits of using of animals in therapeutic settings. Besides aiding physical health, animals can enhance the mental health of people. Many people benefit from the unconditional affection from a friendly animal, especially during times of transition or difficulty.  Enter animal-assisted therapy, offered at our counseling center in Southfield MI!

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

The American Humane Association defines animal-assisted therapy (AAT) on their website as:

“a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical health-care treatment process. AAT is delivered or directed by a professional health or human service provider who demonstrates skill and expertise regarding the clinical applications of human-animal interactions.”

Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is the use of certified therapy animals as a part of a therapeutic plan. Pet Partners, once known as the Delta Society, has described animal assisted therapy as a “significant part of treatment for many people who are physically, socially, emotionally or cognitively challenged.”  This type of therapy is especially useful for children, those with PTSD, and anyone suffering from social stress and an inability to connect.

Here are four more facts you might not know about animal-assisted therapy:

1. They are not dependent on a specific theory. Animal-assisted therapy encompasses all types of psychology theories from psychoanalytic to behavioral. Amy McCullough, who is the American Humane Association’s National Animal-Assisted Therapy Director, explains that animal-assisted therapy is “utilizing an animal as an adjunct to a therapeutic process” regardless of theory. In general, AAT “becomes another tool in their tool kit for the type of therapy they practice.”

2. They are not service animals. Although often confused with service animals, there are significant differences between them. Service animals, for example, are protected by the American Disabilities Act, live with owners who have physical and emotional disabilities and assist them solely with daily living. In contrast, therapy animals work with professionals and clients.

3. They don’t just include dogs. While you will most likely hear about dogs and horses, therapy animals run the gamut from llamas to dolphins.

4. They help individuals with a wide variety of causes and settings. Therapy animals assist therapists in helping clients with a multitude of goals such as improving self-esteem and developing social skills, as well as providing help for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They also work in a wide variety of clinical settings from psychiatric hospitals to nursing homes.

The Benefits of Counseling with a Therapy Dog

When brought into a counseling session for an individual or family, a dog might sit next to a shy or hurting person and offer some comfort merely by being there. People often open up when petting a friendly dog.

Psychologists, social workers and counselors have utilized dogs in therapy, formally called Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT; Altschiller, 2011). As dogs have been used for multiple service professions, their utility as social and emotional beings also make them ideal for a counselor’s aide.

The significance of the human-animal bond has garnered not only clinical, but research interest. The utility of AAT has been expounded in numerous popular media outlets, case studies, grant-funded research studies and peer-reviewed publications (McCardle, McCune, Griffin, Esposito & Freund, 2010). The research has indicated that our connection with animals, particularly dogs, is historical, neurobiological, social and emotional. The research on AAT has shown strong evidence that therapy dogs are helpful for multiple populations in a variety of contexts.

Counselors in an agency setting can utilize trained, insured and registered therapy dogs in individual and group mental health settings. Using these pets in these settings has been shown to reduce stress, increase rapport, help clients to become more cognizant of emotional reactions and support resiliency in individual and group sessions (Perry, Rubinstein & Austin, 2012). Counselors who specialize in working with children or with individuals with disabilities will find that there are also multiple uses for dogs in terms of building rapport and working on specific goals, such as physical skills and social interactions (McCardle et al., 2010).

Essentially, dogs can be utilized in counseling in two main ways. First, there can be non-directive approaches where a dog is present within the therapy room, but not the main focus (Perry et al., 2012). In this method, the dog helps to build rapport with the counselor, connects emotionally to the client(s) and impacts the client or group by their presence in the environment. The second way that dogs can be utilized in the counseling environment is to make specific directives surrounding the interaction with the dog. It could be to brush the dog, teach the dog a trick, or be specifically asked to pet the dog while talking about highly emotional issues.

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 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.

When asked about their feelings regarding the attendance of a therapy dog during a session, people cited benefits such as:

1) Participants were comforted by the dog.

2) There was a perception of the dog as being accepting and non-judgmental.

3) Participants developed a special relationship to the dog.

4) The dog provided a connection to the therapist.

5) Participants perceived the dog as loving.

6) Participants described the dog’s role in therapy as relaxing and comforting.

7) The distractions caused by the dog were found to be needed breaks.

8) Trusted the dogs more than humans.

For some patients, the presence of a dog provides a beneficial augmentation of their individual psychotherapy sessions with their therapists. The benefits or drawbacks of a canine presence during therapy sessions are controversial and not widely practiced.[ii] Those who identify themselves as “animal people” respond the best, so the results may not be as positive for people who are not fond of animals. Individuals who have allergies or a strong fear might also struggle to connect or even seek another therapist. Katcher and Beck proposed that humans naturally and instinctively may feel safe in the presence of calm animals; perhaps because an animal may signal the presence of a dangerous predator.[iii],[iv]

Why You’ll Love Animal-Assisted Therapy

The same sense of healing, security and unconditional love that your furry friend gives you is what you’ll experience in therapy.  You or your child may find it easier to open up and feel connected to your therapist.  Your counseling session time may seem to fly by, since you feel more relaxed.  By attending a counseling session with a therapy dog present, you may feel more comfortable exploring emotions, and feel safer in general.