Animal Assisted Therapy Feed

The Healing Power of Animals

A hospital in Kentucky is reviewing their "No Pets" rule for patients after a terminal patient improved when he was allowed to see his dog. 

A Huffington Post article points out that having a pet will cause you to get more exercise (I know mine does) and helps humans realize that love can be unconditional.   I still remember a client who, after decades of drug use, got clean and sober but had no idea how to socialize with other people.  He also had no faith that other people could be trusted in relationships.  Then he rescued a dog from the local animal shelter.  And joined the dog club at his apartment complex.  And everything changed.  As his faith in living creatures was restored by the love of his dog, his faith in the human race was restored as well.  He made friends in the dog club and was welcomed back into the human race - all through the love of a dog.

And an article by NPR, cites medical studies performed 30 years ago which showed that petting your dog could lower your blood pressure.  More recent studies show that interacting with animals releases oxytocin in the brain which promotes healing and the growth of new cells.  Oxytocin also makes us feel happy and trusting.  Another study found that heart attack patients with pets lived longer than patients without pets.

In therapy with traumatized children, animals have a calming effect.  They can center and ground a child who is hypervigilant or anxious.  Grieving clients will take comfort from a therapy dog and clients struggling with a substance abuse issue will often befriend a therapy dog before they are able to re-establish their broken human connections.  

Service animals have been helping patients who were blind or deaf have more active lives for a long time.  But we are only now beginning to realize that our pets can help us with emotional issues as well.






Why Horses Make the Best Therapists

A teenaged boy was brought to us who had experienced a horrific childhood full of abuse and neglect.  He had adopted some bizarre behaviors as a result which distanced him from his peers and provoked a lot of bullying and chiding.  Almost everything he did begged to be made fun of.  It was heart wrenching to watch him struggle to get along with children at the shelter and at school.  But how to address so many behaviors without totally crushing him?

With a horse named Buddy.  Buddy is probably the best therapist I ever met.  He is sensitive and patient beyond belief so he came straight up to the boy and loved all over him.  The boy was elated, the horse liked him!  (Most abused children take the blame for their own abuse, assuming there is something wrong with them which provokes or deserves the abuse.  So their first fear is always that they will not be liked.)  So Buddy's ready acceptance of the boy was healing.  But, as the boy started acting out his behaviors Buddy would gently pull away.  He didn't leave, he just moved away from the inappropriate touching or the explosive noises.  The boy got it immediately.  "He doesn't like that!"  Not a word was spoken, but volumes were communicated.  As his other therapist, I could then gently ask, "how do other people respond when you do that?"  And the boy could tell me without feeling badly about himself because Buddy was right there nuzzling him and liking him.  With Buddy's positive reinforcement we moved through his disruptive behaviors in no time replacing things Buddy did not like with behaviors Buddy did like.  

And what Buddy liked, the other kids did too! 


How to Choose an Animal Assisted Therapist

A lot of people are claiming to use animals in therapy sessions these day.  While I'm thrilled to see that our species if finally beginning to appreciate the value of animals in our lives and our work, it's important to know what to look for in an animal assisted therapy practice.  How are you able to tell what's the real deal?

A lot of people write and ask us about certification programs for Animal Assisted Therapy.  Most of the programs I am aware of certify the animal.  As if animals need certification!  What is more important is to make sure your therapist is fully licensed to practice mental health therapy, not physical therapy or occupational therapy, or "life coaching" or whatever people may choose to call it these days.  Once you ascertain that the therapist is licensed to practice therapy you can then ask about animal assisted therapy. 

Ask the therapist how working with animals is different than traditional talk therapy.  They should be able to tell you, in concrete terms, how it affects their practice of therapy.  Saying, "Oh people like having my dog Sparky in the room, it makes them feel better" isn't sufficient.  Therapy is not to make people feel better.  It is to bring about enlightenment or awareness that will help clients make better choices in their lives.  The therapist should be able to tell you specifically how working with an animal will facilitate that.

The therapist should also be able to tell you how they picked the animal or animals they are using.  Why are they using a dog instead of a cat?  How did they pick that particular dog?   If they are merely bringing their pet to the office because they like having them there it's not necessarily animal assisted therapy.  The therapist should be able to give you clear examples of how the animal or animals will be used therapeutically.  If they just have their pet dog lying in the therapy room floor for you to pet you may want to keep looking.

Ask the therapist what issues are best addressed using animals?  Are there any issues which should not be addressed using animals?  (Hint:  Clients with antisocial personality disorder or conduct disorder, both of which may involve a client who abuses or tortures animals, may be inappropriate for animal assisted therapy or at least require heavy screening.)  What types of clients may not work well with animals? 

Finally, the therapist should also demonstrate a healthy relationship with the animal.  If the therapist is not interacting with the animal in a healthy way how are they going to help you be healthy?  You should be able to see that there is a relationship between the therapist and the animal and that it is based on trust and respect.  That includes being able to see that the animal has good medical care, adequate food and water and a healthy environment.  All the things you would want to see in your therapist. 

Animal assisted therapy is a new and exciting addition to traditional talk therapy, but it's important to know what to look for in a therapist claiming to use animal assisted therapy.  I hope this article provides useful food for thought as well as specific questions to ask.



The Power of Animals to Heal

Since I specialize in using animals to work with abused children, one of my readers asked me to write about animal assisted therapy.  I think it would take a book to say all that I appreciate about working with animals to provide therapy.  But this is a start...

The other day one of our therapists was working with a 10 year old girl who was extremely tense and hadn't been able to open up about what was going on in her family.  One of our donkeys, Hoover, who had previously never allowed strangers to come anywhere near him, wandered up to her and rested his very heavy head on her knee.  She began stroking his ears and head and immediately began to calm.  As she calmed she felt safer and began to open up and talk about what was concerning her.  And Hoover benefitted greatly from her caresses. 

Research has shown that petting an animal lowers our blood pressure and promotes our overall physical health.  But we sometimes forget about how being around animals can benefit our mental health.  We calm and settle.  They help us be "mindful" and in the present.  They ground us and help reduce stress.

They can also teach us about relationships. I can watch how someone interacts with an animal and learn a lot about how they interact with people.  Are they aggressive, passive or assertive?  Are they cold and distant or warm and affectionate?  How do they touch the animal; with loving, appropriate strokes?  With a disconnected pat?  

The way the animals react to a person will also tell me a lot about them; more so when working with horses than with dogs.  Dogs are predators just like us.  But horses are prey animals.  Their life depends on their ability to accurately "read" a predator (i.e. a human) and react accordingly.  They are some of life's best psychologists.  If the horse becomes antsy I know the client is feeling anxiety.  If the horse pins their ears and gets away from the person I know they are angry.  If the horse moves in to interact with the person I know they feel safe, so the person must be relatively calm.

At TherapyWorks, when working with children who have been abused, we actually implement some horse training exercises in our therapy sessions.  Can the child get the animal to work with them without getting frustrated and resorting to violence?  Being assertive, as opposed to passive or aggressive, can be a big challenge for a child who was raised in a violent home.  Children of violence typically see only aggressive (the abuser) or passive (the abused) behaviors.  Healthy assertion is an alien concept for them.

Animals can also teach us about boundaries.  This is mine, that is yours.  I have a right to say no.  This horse doesn't like to have her ears touched.  That dog doesn't like to have her head patted.  Children (and often adults) who were sexually molested at a young age often have a lot of trouble knowing what healthy, appropriate touch is.  They can also have trouble understanding that they have a right to refuse uncomfortable touch.  The animals can teach this.  When animals are touched in a way they don't like, the react, usually by moving away.  They can teach a molested child; 1) that they have a right to ask that people not touch them in ways they don't like and 2) how to show someone they don't like it.

Animals can also teach us healthy assertiveness.  We often use a technique called "Back Off".  This technique is especially effective with a 2000 pound draft horse.  Teenagers get an opportunity to practice assertion when they ask our draft horse, Big Jack to back up.  If they can get a 2000 pound horse to back off, a 100 lb. bully is not so intimidating.

Animal assisted therapy is increasingly gaining popularity - and for good reason.   However, it's important to know what to look for in an animal assisted therapist.  Stay tuned.  I'll be posting that soon.  








Francis the Traumatized Mule: Treating Anxiety in Animals and Humans

Francis, a mule we are rehabilitating for providing animal assisted therapy, has a history of very severe abuse.  As a result, she has chronic anxiety.  Apparently her previous owners tranquilized her to deal with her anxiety and fear.  I see a lot of humans doing this for their anxiety.  It's amazing how closely her coping mechanisms mirror those of human trauma survivors.

Continue reading "Francis the Traumatized Mule: Treating Anxiety in Animals and Humans" »

What a Difference a Year Makes!

Hello loyal readers.  I apologize for my absence, but I had to get some things straight in my own life.  So I quit my job working for an abusive boss and asked myself what kind of counseling I would do if I could any kind at all.  I've seen a lot of violence and I've learned that there is only so much I can do to stop it.  Though I can't change the entire world, I can create a safe place in my little corner of it.  And if there are two things I want most in this world, it is to save children and animals from violence.  So I created a nonprofit organization which rescues animals, rehabilitates them and works with them to provide animal assisted therapy to children who have experienced violence.  We are small, but growing and you can visit the website for my new organization, TherapyWorks.

As for this blog, I shall now take up my "pen" and try to return to regular posts.  I am reading all of your comments during this past year (I'll try to catch up on responding to them) and appreciate your patience. 

"If you don't live what you sing about your mirror is going to find out." 
Ani DiFranco,  "The Million You Never Made"