What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?
Animal-assisted therapy sometimes referred to as “animal-assisted intervention,” is a therapeutic supplement to more foundational therapies. It is often used to develop trust between patients and their counselors, and to enhance a patient’s quality of life through the development of certain social skills.
Recently, it has become a popular practice among counselors helping patients to resolve substance abuse issues. Animal attachment can be a strong motivator for patients to remain in therapy, thereby allowing them to reap the most that their sessions have to offer. The effectiveness of counseling requires a warm counselor-patient relationship. Thus, some other types of therapy may not be able to fully address mental health issues without the addition of animal-assisted therapy, due to underlying trust issues or emotional isolation.
A wealth of therapeutic practices fall under the category of animal-assisted therapy, though simply owning or spending time with a pet is not sufficient to qualify as officially therapeutic. To be considered animal-assisted therapy, a course of treatment must:
- Be administered by a licensed mental health practitioner
- Consist of goal-directed interventions using animals
- Utilize the assistance of trained animals who meet clinical standards of effectiveness and safety
Dogs are the most commonly employed animals for these purposes, but other animals used in therapy include cats, rabbits, birds, rats, and plenty of others.
SCAC and Animal-Assisted Therapy
We at the Southern California Addiction Center practice animal-assisted therapy as necessary, supplementing baseline therapeutic models with the intimacy of safely introduced pet-patient relationships. The unconditional love of an animal can be a powerful tool in the rehabilitation of a struggling patient. Unconditional positive regard can be a potent form of loving affirmation for patients who are having difficulty connecting to a counselor.
Even simple pet-patient engagement can help bring the patient into a comfortable space where they are more open to bonding with the counselor. In particular, SCAC aims for structured animal therapy emphasizing goals for patients and pets to achieve together.
This can provide patients with a sense of accomplishment, boosting self-esteem and encouraging honest dialogue between patient and counselor. At times, the failure of patients to open up is tied to the unwillingness to divulge negative personal traits or habits.
For instance, if a patient is consumed by invasive feelings that he or she is worthless, they may be unlikely to speak openly about these feelings with their counselor. Doing so would require the humiliating exposure of their self-conceived inferiority, and it would be at odds with the endless private quest to discreetly quell those feelings, rather than to shine a light on them.
In many cases, it is critical to shine a light on problematic thinking and cognitive distortions to understand and adequately address them. Animal-assisted therapy can assist this process by giving the patient access to an animal that loves him without easily violable boundaries, thus helping to internalize a certain degree of self-worth. Once this is the case, the patient may feel more comfortable opening up.
Alternatively, a patient with significant trust issues may struggle to relate personal information to a counselor. Animal-assisted therapy can introduce the patient to the comforting trust bonds that can exist between two minds, opening the patient up to the trust available between patient and counselor.
In either of these cases, a friendly animal can act as a social conduit for two people to relate. The mere presence of an animal can work to help break the ice and get the patient into a more comfortable space. A dog to pet, or a cat to hold, may induce openness as a result of simple warmth, physical comfort, or bonding.
Animal-Assisted Therapy and Addiction
The mere ownership of a pet is correlated positively with lowered cholesterol, lower obesity, and improved exercise. That being said, these correlations may just indicate that a healthy, active person is more likely to obtain a pet in the first place. In any case, the responsibility of caring for another consciousness can help former addicts remain committed to the healing process. Notably, poor social skills or anxious, negative impressions of other people can lead to the development of addictions. Sometimes, this underlying issue is effectively treated by introducing an animal into a patient’s life.
This is a kind of stepping stone on the way to societal reintegration, which will ultimately include job acquisition, higher education, new relationships, and rekindled relationships with friends and family. An addict’s isolation from the world is something critical to address, and it can effectively begin with animal-assisted therapy.
If animals do not engage with patients at a satisfactory level, the patient can be coached to demonstrate a more effective style of communication and general interaction. The patient’s resulting improved mood, enhanced confidence, and refined communication skills are usually helpful in the overall reduction of anxiety and depression.
While the transferability of skills across the animal-human gap is a verifiable supplemental therapy for many addicts and other patients, this process is not for everyone. Patients with a history of harming animals or fur-triggered allergies may not be compatible with a course of treatment assisted by trained animals.
SCAC — We’re Ready to Talk to You
Are you or a loved one struggling with an addiction? At Southern California Addiction Center, we tailor a thoughtful treatment program to the individual, ensuring the smoothest, most comfortable path to recovery possible. No one experiences addiction in the same way, and everyone we treat deserves the personalized love and care that they need to move forward. Contact us today for more information, or to determine your next steps. Our caring staff of licensed professionals are always ready to receive new people into our midst and to illuminate their personal road to recovery.
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If you or you’re loved one is in need of help with addiction, contact us today. Our team is standing by, ready and willing to talk about your problems, and help you find the best solution.