Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a therapeutic, goal-directed treatment that integrates animals with intention and purpose into psychotherapy, with interventions designed to benefit the cognitive, social and emotional functioning of the client. Therapy animals are excellent role models – they model positive attributes to clients such as patience, forgiveness, acceptance, and presence. Because they are attuned to clients’ shifting energy, breath, and movement, they provide us with a deeper understanding of emotional processes.
Animals in therapeutic treatment help improve motivation and engagement during sessions. AAT is experiential in nature and helps clients practice skills such as focus, responsibility, relaxation, frustration tolerance, and anger management techniques. They can also assist in areas of empathy and nurturance, increasing self-confidence and self-esteem as they add humor and fun to sessions.
The Healing Power of Animals
Bringing therapy animals into therapeutic sessions allows clients – children, teens, and adults – to explore and engage in the present moment. This approach provides opportunities for clients to participate in relationships where the animals offer an insight and provide feedback to actions, behavior, energy, breathing, and language, both verbal and non-verbal. It deepens the client’s awareness of contact styles and choices and responsibilities within relationships. Intimate moments emerge through non-verbal exchanges; this communication between client-therapist-animal is where real change and healing can happen.
Another important aspect of AAT is the healing power of touch and to be touched. The soothing impact of petting or grooming creates a lasting experience for the client and helps foster healing from pain (emotional and physical) and stress.
Animals have long been recognized as a positive addition to the healing process. In hospitals, schools, and therapy settings, visits from therapy dogs have shown increased happiness, calmness, and overall maintenance of emotional well-being. Studies have also shown that therapy dogs can help create a positive emotional response and decrease stress during their visits. Therapy dogs in particular have been found to improve the emotional benefits of therapy by assisting in the treatment of trauma, depression, self-esteem, and anxiety.
Benefits of AAT
- Increase in self-reliance and sociability
- Improve sharing behavior in children
- Increase in coping strategies and daily living
- Prevention and reduction in symptoms of depression
- Increased relaxation aided by petting
- Decreased heart rate and blood pressure by petting and dog presence
- Increase in hopefulness
- Comforting, appropriate physical contact and touch
- Increase in feelings of acceptance