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Restoring Relationships Through Animal Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is an integrated method that uses the healing power and unconditional love of animals in conjunction with other evidence-based treatments. Dogs and horses are the most frequently used animals in treatment, but any properly trained animal is beneficial.

AAT is useful in any medical setting, but integrating it into substance use disorder (SUD) treatment and co-occurring mental health diagnoses increases compliance and lowers treatment dropout rates. The animals improve the alliances between everyone involved and create a more positive view of the treatment environment.

What Are the Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animals create an atmosphere of trust just by their quiet presence in the room.

Physical and Emotional Benefits

The benefit to a client of having a treatment animal present during treatment is significant, both physically and emotionally. Physically, the benefit is immediate: blood pressure, cortisol, and hormone levels are lower, and feelings of emotional distress dissipate because of the gentle presence of an animal. People who participate in AAT indicate that they feel less anxious and less emotional discomfort when in an integrated treatment environment that includes an animal. 

Improving Client-Therapist Relationships

When AAT is included in a treatment plan, the patient-therapist relationship also benefits. People tend to develop a trusting relationship with their therapist quicker when an animal is involved in treatment rather than being seen by a therapist alone. Adding an animal to the environment helps patients relax and embrace the possibilities available in integrative treatment.

Including animals in the equation during one-on-one sessions can create a topic of mutual comfort for both the client and the therapist; they can share positive thoughts about the animal. This can turn their relationship into an improved therapeutic alliance very early, rather than after several sessions of finding no mutual positive ground. When the client and therapist find mutual ground through an animal, the overall outcome improves because of a shared commitment to the animal involved. 

Healing Through Touch

Clients may allow the soothing and nurturing effect of touch from an animal before they are willing to allow it from another person. A therapy animal enables a client to initiate physical comfort while petting or hugging an animal, which provides the healing benefit of touch without the discomfort of human interaction.

Why Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Help in Recovery?

AAT helps people in treatment and recovery from addiction to drugs, alcohol, or unhealthy behaviors for many reasons, including:

  • Interacting with an animal immediately releases hormones that support well-being
  • Interacting with an animal is an important first step to connecting with other people
  • Animals do not judge you; this unconditional love allows immediate nonverbal positive communication and acceptance
  • Being physically active with an animal improves physical and mental health, and the interaction can help break your negative thought patterns
  • Having an animal to spend time with removes feelings of loneliness from the recovery process
  • Animals give you a way to accept companionship without unhealthy attachments
  • Animals restore hope for the future by showing people how to embrace only the now
  • Animals give you a way to experience good habits and regular routines
  • Handling animals reduces aggressive and anxious feelings and counteracts depression
  • Successfully handling animals builds self-esteem and self-confidence

How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Help Rebuild Essential Relationships?

For many people with SUD, one of the most significant challenges they face after leaving treatment is rebuilding and repairing relationships with family members, friends, and co-workers. The experience of AAT can help people who have struggled with SUD to improve significant relationships in their lives in the following ways:

  • Once you have developed a successful relationship with an animal, it paves the way through those good habits and successful interactions to use the same strategies to build or rebuild relationships 
  • Sharing a relationship with the same animal as others in your program helps you share an extended relationship with both your treatment team and your peers; animals build safe and common ground for healing to happen
  • Interacting with animals restores brain neurochemical pathways back to their original mode of function
  • Animals allow people to be vulnerable without fear, which allows the development of healthy coping mechanisms 
  • Animals allow people to feel pleasurable feelings, not connected to substances
  • During treatment, animals keep people active, reduce stress, loneliness and provide a sense of purpose

AAT is beneficial when included in conjunction with a comprehensive and integrated treatment plan. AAT is not intended to be a stand-alone treatment; AAT should be goal oriented and incorporated into a client’s overall treatment plan.

How Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Help to Process Trauma?

Trauma-specific care can successfully incorporate AAT with several other integrated treatments. Trauma and trauma-related disorders cause difficulty with experiencing and processing emotions and the source of those emotions. AAT keeps trauma survivors in the “now” because animals live in the moment, not the past or the future; animal experiences can be the model for someone who is relearning this skill and finding a place in the now. Animals allow a trauma survivor to experience healthy, mutual, and nonsexual touch in a safe environment.

Using AAT as part of a comprehensive treatment plan can help people who are recovering from SUD, healing from mental health issues, or working to resolve past trauma. Spending time with an animal can eliminate anxiety, sadness, and feelings of insecurity. This supplements a comprehensive treatment plan in ways that could not otherwise happen and leads to successful long-term outcomes.

Rebuilding relationships is essential to successful recovery. While active in substance abuse, you probably lost trust in yourself and other human beings. Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) allows the first step to regaining trust in yourself and other people to be a very gentle first step in recovery. Bonding with an animal allows people to gain unconditional love and acceptance in a peaceful, non-threatening way. It is a safe environment to begin opening up to other living beings. AAT offers a secure living being to bond with who will always be non-judgmental and available. Treatment for substance use disorder (SUD), mental health disorders, and trauma can be stressful; adding an animal to the mix has instant and profound benefits. The Guest House offers AAT and trauma-specific treatment plans; we are here to help and support you throughout your journey with several integrated options. To learn more, call us at (855) 483-7800.