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Therapy dogs typically work with their owners in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and rehabilitation centers. They play with abused children, give affection to the elderly, help the critically ill to laugh and forget their pain for a while, and sometimes provide a warm lick to wipe the tears away.
In many cases, the presence of dogs provides a sense of normalcy and reassurance to troubled individuals. One of the reasons therapy dogs can be so helpful is their ability to give unconditional love and comfort. Acceptance and non-judgment are perhaps the two most important gifts that these animals can offer. To these dogs we are “perfect” just the way we are. During more than 20 years of private practice working with alcoholics and their families, I have seen the toll that active addiction takes on an individual’s self-esteem and the family’s sense of safety and trust. Shame, guilt, secrecy and hopelessness create a fertile ground for self-loathing, despair and an abnormal fear response. In an environment where people have proven to not be trustworthy – or, in the addict’s case if they cannot trust themselves – trained therapy dogs can potentially bridge the gap and make a difference in one’s recovery.
Animal assisted therapy Several studies have proven the powerful effects that dogs and companion animals can have in reducing the psychological stress response, anxiety, fear and other nervous disorders (Baker & Dawson, 1998; Friedman et al). The Delta Society, the leading international resource for the human-animal bond, is a non-profit organization that validates the important role of animals for people’s health and well-being by promoting research findings to the media and health and human services organizations. Delta Society has developed many standards-based training methods, and offers a course for professionals in Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). The psychosocial treatment goals are almost identical to many of the treatment goals of addiction recovery after abstention from the addictive substance has been achieved.
Stabilized and Improve social skills by learning gentle ways to communicate and handle the animal, such as feeding and grooming.Brighten affect, mood, pleasure and affection while playing with the animal.Reduce abusive behavior and learn appropriate touch.Improve ability to express feelings by identifying how an animal might feel in a certain situation and/or recalling a client’s history with pets (sharing stories of grief or funny events).Reduce anxiety and fear by forming a bond of love and comfort with the animal.Learn how to better communicate with people by talking to the animal.Develop a cooperative plan to accomplish something with the animal.
Cynthia Chandler, author of Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling, points out that the positive benefits to be gained from therapy can be more immediate when a therapy pet is involved, especially when working with a resistant client. The desire to be with the therapy pet can sometimes override the client’s initial defenses (Chandler, 2005). She further points to the natural relationship that occurs between dogs and humans which can result in quick bonding and trust between the client and dog in a therapeutic setting. According to Chandler, this bond between the pet and the client also helps to facilitate a bond with the therapist, as the feelings of affection and trust for the pet are eventually transferred to the pet’s therapist. Screening is required for clients in recovery who have a history of violence, animal abuse, animal phobias or allergies. However, most clients and pets will benefit from this type of therapy (Chandler, 2005).According to Dr. Joseph Volpicelli and the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “20 million Americans suffer from alcohol abuse disorders, yet only about 2 million are in any kind of treatment program.”
It is important for any therapist or physician in the field of alcoholism to keep an open mind to new and emerging treatment and recovery methods, not necessarily as a substitute for current methods or 12-step programs, but as an enhancement. In the last 20 years several universities have established animal assisted therapy training centers for the study, education and research of the animal/human bond and how it can be applied to counseling and other related fields. It is my hope that with continued research and education, animal assisted therapy in varying forms will grow in popularity and respect as a viable counseling tool for addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and other related fields of recovery.
Staying sober I recall reading an article in the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) publication Grapevine Magazine about a woman with eight years of sobriety who became suicidal after a series of losses in her personal and professional life. Nothing seemed to help her until a sober friend asked for help with her horse. The horse’s nonjudgmental and loving manner, coupled with a newfound responsibility for something other than herself, turned the woman’s desperate mood and despondency around. In the years to come the horse helped other people in AA, and became a kind of “Goodwill Ambassador” (Amy G., February 2004).
Can an animal help prevent a relapse? Well, in the aforementioned case it may not have been the only factor, but it was a key component. As the woman shared her positive experiences with the animal, others became hopeful and stayed sober as well. I recall the story of a man who left his dog in the car on a beautiful summer’s day to go into a pub and have a quick beer. Hours later he emerged into the bright sunlight to find his dog dead from the heat. He was so devastated by the loss of his pet that it became the “bottom” that led him through the doors of AA. He believes that he has continued to stay sober as a result of that loss. Whenever doubt creeps into his consciousness he can quickly remember his old pal and go to another AA meeting.
Stories of getting sober and being aided in staying sober fill the halls of AA and other recovery centers, and now, with the expansion of the field of AAT, perhaps the use of animals at treatment centers will one day become commonplace.
Love is considered by many to be the universal healer. Is it any less comforting if the source is not human? According to a study done at the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition in Leicestershire, England, a pet’s love can help reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels, moderate the effects of stress, and build a sense of empathy. Love creates a bond that undeniably aids in the health, happiness and a sense of belonging that makes life worth living (Meunier, 2003).
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© Copyright 2014 by Cali Estes, therapist in Miami, Florida. All rights reserved.