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.