Animal-Assisted Therapy in Substance Abuse Treatment

Animal Assisted Therapy with Judge

There’s no doubt that humans and animals share a special bond but did you know that even simply interacting with animals offers numerous health benefits? Animal-assisted therapy has been gaining popularity for treating substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and more. Today, animals are being used in a variety of clinical settings like rehabs, hospitals, doctors offices, and nursing homes to improve the well-being of clients and patients. See how animal-assisted therapy got started, the benefits of animal-assisted therapy in substance abuse treatment, and how therapy dogs like our pit bull mix, Judge, is helping clients.

The History of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Throughout history, animals have served many purposes including protection, food, entertainment, and ultimately companionship. In fact, humans began domesticating animals and keeping them as pets over 15,000 years ago. Our ancestors may not have known the scientific reasons why having pets added happiness to their lives, they just knew that interacting with animals made them feel good. It wouldn’t be until the 19th century when the benefits of animals on humans’ health began to get noticed.

1800s Nursing and Psychiatry

The first known documentation of the therapeutic potential of animals came in the mid-1800s from Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. In her book, Notes on Nursing, she wrote, “A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially. A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years to the same room.”

A few decades later, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, began including his dog Jofi during his therapy sessions. Freud recognized a special sense in dogs and used Jofi to gauge his patients’ tension by how close or far Jofi sat from them. Freud also realized that many of his patients felt more comfortable speaking openly to him when Jofi was in the room. However, Freud’s observations on the therapeutic potential of dogs didn’t come to light until after his death years later when translations of his letters and journals became public.

The Father of Animal-Assisted Therapy

In 1961, a child psychotherapist named Boris Levinson made an accidental discovery when he unknowingly left his dog alone with a mentally impaired, nonverbal 9-year-old boy. When he returned, Levinson found the young boy interacting and communicating with the dog. This inspired him to do further research which produced similar results in other children who had difficulty communicating. Levinson coined the phrase “pet therapy” and eventually became known as “The Father of Animal-Assisted Therapy.” Ironically, when he first presented his findings, he wasn’t taken seriously until Freud’s similar experiences later surfaced.

The Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

As animal-assisted therapy gained acceptance, its physical, cognitive, and psychological benefits became increasingly recognized. Studies on animal-assisted therapy have shown that petting, playing with, or even just watching animal activities lowers the level of cortisol and increases the production of serotonin in humans, making us less stressed and anxious. Animal-assisted therapy is particularly effective in:

  • Improving social and communication skills
  • Stabilizing emotions
  • Easing anxiety
  • Improving mood
  • Reducing depression

Interacting with animals helps to build trust, improve patience, boost confidence, and reduce feelings of loneliness, sadness, anger, and insecurity. Many of these factors can be achieved simply by petting an animal. Humans find encouragement and compassion from the nonjudgmental and unconditional love given by animals. Studies have even found that those who frequently interact with animals have lower blood pressure and heart rates than those with less frequent contact.

The Use of Therapy Dogs in Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment

There are a variety of animals that can be used for animal-assisted therapy including horses, cats, guinea pigs, potbellied pigs, and dolphins. However, by far the most commonly used animals are dogs. The phrase “a dog is a man’s best friend” is actually rooted in truth. Dogs are extremely in tune with human emotions, facial expressions, and overall behavior. Their senses are so acute they can even anticipate anxiety or panic attacks and help the person calm down, or detect and alert a diabetic person of a sudden drop in blood glucose level so the person knows to eat something to be out of danger.

Animal-assisted therapy, or ‘canine-assisted therapy’ with the use of therapy dogs, enhances and compliments traditional substance abuse treatment. In a 12-week pilot project, therapy dogs improved the rehab clients’ social-emotional, cognitive, and behavioral functioning. The presence of therapy dogs also increased opportunities to obtain background information and insights into the clients’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors which helped to identify unhealthy coping mechanisms and educate/encourage better choices. Although therapy dogs go through training, they must have a calm and submissive temperament since they provide comfort through body contact and have to tolerate intense emotional outbursts. Pit bulls, in particular, are being used as therapy dogs despite misconceptions about the breed.

Benefits of Pit Bulls As Therapy Dogs

Pit bulls have a negative reputation for being aggressive, violent, and unpredictable because of their history of being used for dogfighting and guarding. The truth is they’re quite loving, affectionate, and faithful. A temperance test from the American Temperament Testing Society revealed that pit bulls are the second most temperant breed, only surpassed by golden retrievers. Pit bulls have become so popular for therapy that they earned the nickname “thera-pits.”

Not only does their temperament make pit bulls great therapy dogs, but they’re also an ideal metaphor for people with addiction and mental health issues since they too are often misunderstood. It’s been found that the presence of therapy pit bulls encourages clients to disclose their own experiences with trauma and violence since pit bulls are one of the most commonly abused and tortured breeds in the drug community for dogfighting and guarding. At Rally Point, we’ve seen firsthand the benefits of animal-assisted therapy in substance abuse treatment thanks to our therapy dog, Judge.

About Our Therapy Dog

Judge is a pit bull mix that was abandoned as a puppy at a boarding facility and scheduled to be transferred to a kill shelter before being saved by a facility employee. He bounced around to several foster homes until he ended up in the Pawsitive Direction Program, a 12-week training program based out of the Okeechobee Correctional Institution where dogs receive behavioral and social training from inmate handlers. Ever the good boy, Judge graduated with his AKC Canine Good Citizen certification and a Ph.D. with honors in Canine Life and Social Skills. Shortly after, Judge joined the Rally Point family and has been making everyone’s days brighter ever since.

Although animal-assisted therapy has only been around since the 1960s, there’s a wealth of evidence that shows it has many therapeutic benefits for our mental, emotional, and physical health. Dogs are particularly well-suited to be used in animal-assisted therapy since they’re naturally intuned with humans and give unconditional love. While our clients aren’t required to interact with our therapy dog, we’ve seen positive changes occur when they do. Contact us today to see whether animal-assisted therapy is the right fit for your journey to sobriety.

About The Author

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The editorial staff at Rally Point works tirelessly to provide the most accurate and non-biased educational content to give our audience the best chance at achieving long-term success in recovery. This is accomplished by only employing highly trained individuals in the alcohol and drug addiction treatment industry. With hundreds of years of combined experience, the editorial staff at Rally Point are trained, qualified and are experts in the field of drug and alcohol addiction treatment.


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