Animal Assisted Therapy in Mental Health

Animal assisted therapy offers positive behavioral support for people with severe emotional or behavioral problems.  It is a goal oriented intervention that caters to the individual needs of each person.  You will see it used in many different environments such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, rehabs, and counseling centers. 

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) can be an integral part of a treatment plan for various disorders, ranging from physical disabilities to severe mental health disorders.  AAT specifically targets an individual's medical needs and can provide healing when many other therapies have failed.

AAT allows the patient the opportunity to give affection, as well as receive it. Having a reciprocal relationship whereby unconditional love can flow freely, is a staple of what makes AAT unique in its method of healing. 

AAT is about connection, regaining trust, encouraging openness, facilitating social interactions, providing nonjudgemental support, increasing laughter, and fostering hope.

History of AAT

Some of the earliest recorded use of AAT took place at a York Retreat in England around the late 18th century. This treatment center for the mentally ill was started by the Quakers.  At this facility, they used animals as a part of their treatment plan to help reduce the needs for harsh medications.  Florence Nightingale recommended and worked closely with animals to help heal physically and mentally disabled people.  Freud strongly believed that dogs had a strange ability to assess a persons character and mental state. Often, he would have his own dog in sessions and would notice a profound calming effect, this was noted particularly in his work with children.  AAT was also used to help wounded veterans in hospitals during the 1940’s.

Some called Boris Levinson the "father of AAT."  He discovered that animals had a special way of reaching severely disturbed children.  His dog had a remarkable ability to bring a child's defense mechanisms lower so that they were better able to communicate with him. He was the first to use the term “pet therapy” and recorded his findings from using this modality.  

I believe that animals will be part of the new frontier of mental health treatment  Working with animals provides a way to tie all the great evidenced based therapies together, encouraging collaboration amongst professionals, while providing a safe place to heal, grow, connect, and give/receive love.

What health conditions can AAT help to treat?

Much of the research to date has shown that animals provide a calming effect on people by reducing blood pressure and reduced anxiety as a result.  AAT can also help to relieve loneliness and instigate social interaction, thereby making AAT one of the best methods for alleviating symptoms of depression.  Animals are naturally nonjudgmental and can help those with low self confidence gain a sense of contentment and self love that has been missing far too long.  The presence of an animal during therapy sessions is especially beneficial with children as it helps them to be more open and trust the therapist. Then, deeper therapy can take place once the child is calm, trusting, and open.

While there are many applications for AAT, our focus is applying it to brain-related challenges. With brain-related illness, one must search for what works for him/her and many times this proves to be a combination of things.  An animal, whether a visit from loving therapy animals, or one's own emotional support animal,  can be the change maker that many don't consider, but quickly realize can provide that missing link needed to encourage recovery, wellness, stability, and hope.   

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"The only creatures that are evolved enough to convey pure love are dogs and infants"

-Johnny Depp