Animal Therapy and the Strong Benefits of Pets
There’s a reason we call dogs a “man’s best friend.” As debates regarding the certification of emotional support animals have flooded the news recently, with stories of squirrels, rats, and monkeys attempting to board airplanes with their humans, the parameters of animal therapy have been called into question. However, mutual relationships between animals and their owners or caregivers build a sense of confidence and responsibility that are beneficial for mental health issues. Animal therapy is a growing field that uses a variety of animals, particularly dogs, cats, and horses, in therapeutic settings to improve people’s moods, ability to cope with stressful situations, and increase their empathy in relationships.
What is Animal Therapy?
Animal therapy may refer to taking care of a pet, visiting a barn with certified horses, or being visited by certified therapy dogs in hospitals, schools, community centers, and therapists’ offices. While all forms are considered therapeutic, each type of service offered comes with its own distinguished restrictions and necessary certifications.
Service dogs are trained to help individuals with disabilities feel safe in public spaces and can be trained to help blind people, deaf people, and people with medical issues, such as diabetes or epilepsy.
Emotional support animals are trained to provide comfort to specific individuals and enable owners to bring them on airplanes or waive pet fees for housing, but are not allowed to enter public spaces.
Effect Animals Have on Mental Health:
Many animals, particularly dogs, are skilled at recognizing human facial expressions and being sensitive to their emotions. While we may not speak the same language, animals use nonverbal cues to communicate with humans. Based on their reliance on instinct and sensory input, it is possible that dogs are more emotionally intelligent than humans are with in their ability to identify emotions and respond to others.
Research shows that developing close bonds with animals increases oxytocin levels in humans. Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter known as the “love hormone” that contributes to building intimacy, trust, and empathy in social relationships. According to Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri, “Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body’s ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier.”
Setting Therapeutic Goals:
All relationships with animals can be therapeutic. Many of our staff members bring their dogs to campus. The dogs often notice students’ emotions and provide comfort when they are overwhelmed. The presence of dogs in therapists’ offices helps students feel more at ease and makes sessions feel more casuals. Sometimes, therapists may suggest taking the dog for a walk for a change of environment and to help students who feel restless in an office. Animals can be used to work towards specific therapeutic goals, including:
- Developing a sense of responsibility
- Reducing anxiety and overwhelming emotions
- Distraction from stressful situations
- Developing communication skills
- Increasing self-reflection
- Increasing empathy
- Learning how to care for and nurture others
- Strengthening companionship through non-verbal or non-judgmental support
Elevations RTC Can Help
Elevations RTC is a program for adolescents ages 13-18 that are struggling with mental health issues, negative relationships, disruptive behavior, and school refusal. We offer a multidisciplinary approach that emphasizes experiential and recreation activities to teach students positive coping skills, communication skills, and self-care practices. We are a relationship-based program that focus on students’ group dynamics and attachment styles within the community, at home, and with the number of animals we have on campus.