Pet therapy, or Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) refers to the use of animals in therapy as part of the treatment process. Animal Assisted Therapy ( AAT ) attempts to improve a human’s physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning (Wesley, 2006). It is used as an adjunct to individual, group, and family therapy sessions held in both outpatient and residential settings. The animals are usually dogs, but other animals are used depending on the needs of the person or group. The purpose of using the animal in the treatment process is different for each person or group being treated. However, the general theory is that the animals make it easier for people to benefit from therapy.
Having an animal present can normalize a stressful situation and act as a buffer against anxiety. Studies show that interacting with a dog is less stressful for people than talking to another person (Vormbrok and Grossberg, 1988). Allowing people who feel anxious and stressed when disclosing personal information to a therapist to communicate to the animal instead can alleviate stress, and make it easier for the patient to be open and honest. Sigmund Freud used his dog Jofi in therapy. He used to communicate comments and interpretations through Jofi, and patients would understand, and communicate back (Walsh 2009). Freud found that people felt less stress with Jofi there, and less stress talking to Jofi than Freud, until gradually they felt more comfortable talking directly to Freud.
Another use of AAT is that it can change people’s perception of the therapist and environment, which may make therapy less threatening and more friendly (Friedmann, 1983). For example, children who are resistant to talking to a therapist have been more likely to trust him or her, and talk more freely after bringing an animal into the treatment process (Wesley, 2006). They didn’t speak to the animal, but perceived the therapist as someone they were willing to open up to.
Coping with stress is a major role that therapy animals play. When people feel stress, their heart rates and blood pressure rise. Feeling stress interferes with progressing in therapy. For people who find therapy stressful, having a pet present can help because it lowers people’s blood pressure and heart rate, relieving their anxiety (Friedmann, 1983).
Theories for the calming effect of pet therapy are that animals distract people from focusing on their anxiety; it changes the perception of the therapist and environment positively; and the interaction of petting the dog will physically calm both the human and animal, decreasing blood pressure and heart rate (Baun, Bergstrom, Langston, & Thoma, 1983).
A number of studies show benefits of using animals for healing and development in individual, group, couples and family therapy, in a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings. The benefits extend to populations of all ages.
Pet therapy is widely used in nursing homes because animals have many benefits to elderly people. Pet therapy improves their social skills and motivates them to be more physically active (Wesley, 2006). Often elderly people in a nursing home will be gathered in a group while therapy animals are brought into their facility by a pet therapy organization. Animal Assisted Therapy AAT is a chance for the elderly group to pet the dogs, talk to them, walk them and talk to the other people in the group about the dog. Because the people are so excited, they talk to the other group members more than they did without animals present. Some ask to take the dogs for a walk, which promotes physical activity. Elderly people feel a sense of being needed by giving the dogs their food, taking them for a walk, and giving them love. In turn, pet therapy aids in reducing depression and loneliness in that population (Wesley, 2006)).
Pet therapy is beneficial for children too. Studies were done with male children between the ages of 9-15 who were diagnosed with ADHD. Having the animals present, made them less nervous, helped the kids see the therapist as more likeable, and they felt more comfortable talking to her. The animals also decreased their agitation and lowered aggressive behavior (Wesley, 2006). Children were the first population that Boris Levinson, the “father of pet therapy,” researched to document the benefits of pet therapy. Among many things, he found that the therapeutic relationship between him and his child patients could begin much faster when using an animal (Lacoff, 1999).
Studies also showed a decrease in agitation and lowered aggressive behavior in psychiatric patients with mood disorders, psychotic disorders, substance use disorders, anxiety, personality disorders and cognitive disorders. The animals reduced stressors and lowered blood pressure in this group (Wesley, 2006).
Pet therapy is beneficial in couple’s and family therapy too. When threatening issues arise, holding and stroking animals can reduce anxiety. Animals can also moderate escalating conflict between spouses. When a child is impulsive or misbehaves, there are teachable moments for parents in handling child behavior problems as therapists model discipline or problem solving strategies with positive reinforcements, and clarify what the animal is seeking (Walsh, 2009).
The use of animals in therapy was documented as early as 1792 by the York Retreat, a residential facility for the mentally disturbed in England (Hooker, Freeman & Stewart, 2002). The Quakers introduced animals in treatment rather than using the cruel treatment methodologies of that time period (Wesley, 2006). Scientific research involving pet therapy wasn’t documented until the 1960’s when child psychiatrist Boris Levinson noticed dramatic improvement in his patients with the use of his animals. He began conducting, documenting and presenting his research to colleagues. He eventually coined the term, “pet therapy.” At the time, he was met with ridicule by other therapists.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, research into pet therapy began to flourish, and continues today. Psychiatric patients and cardiology patients are in the forefront of the research, and mental and physical benefits to pet therapy and dog ownership continue to be confirmed and expanded on.
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