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Animal-Assisted Therapy: Does It Work with Stuffed Animals?


Integrating live animals into the therapeutic process has been gaining recognition as a viable and effective approach in a clinical setting. Equine-assisted therapy is a widely popular form of therapy that has shown remarkable results with clients who do not respond well to other types of treatment. Similarly, children who are resistant to traditional therapies have demonstrated improvement in animal-assisted therapies. For individuals who experience disassociation, animals represent an unconditional source of love and acceptance. For people who may have experienced early life trauma, especially trauma or abuse that undermined attachment relationships, animals can replace missing secure attachment bonds.

Although animals as therapy adjuncts, even pets, can help reduce anxiety, depression, loneliness, and isolation, owning or working with an animal may not be a viable option for everyone in need. Therefore, stuffed animals, which represent a source of comfort in times of stress for young people, may serve as a suitable replacement. Rose M. Barlow of the Department of Psychology at Boise State University in Idaho wanted to see if stuffed animals would serve clients equally as well as live animals. In a recent study, Barlow surveyed a sample of high and low dissociative female college students and those with dissociative identity disorder (DID) about attachment to live and stuffed animals. She found that the DID women had significantly stronger attachments to both live and stuffed animals than any of the other women. She also found that those with high dissociation and those with DID reported higher levels of attachment to stuffed animals than live animals when compared to the low dissociative group.

The findings of this study have several important clinical implications. Even though comorbid issues such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar were not considered in this research, the evidence suggests that stuffed animals may be particularly helpful to those with high levels of dissociation. Because symptoms of dissociation, even disorganized attachment, can begin in childhood and result from emotionally unavailable parents, divorce, or abuse, integrating stuffed animals into therapy for young children can provide a sense of security and help to rebuild impaired attachment bonds. “Animals, live or stuffed, can aid therapy for both children and adults by providing a way to experience and express emotions, a feeling of unconditional support, and grounding,” Barlow said.

Barlow, Rose M., Lisa DeMarni Cromer, Hannah Prairie Caron, and Jennifer J. Freyd. Comparison of normative and diagnosed dissociation on attachment to companion animals and stuffed animals. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice & Policy 4.5 (2012): 501-06. Print.

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  • Robyn November 1st, 2012 at 3:20 PM #1

    This feels like a real reach for me, and typically I am open and willing to integrate new and creative ideas into my methodology. But stuffed animals in no way can reciprocate and replicate what a live animal can do for a patient who so needs that closeness and attachment that only a real animal has to offer. In many ways for me this seems almost too childish for a method of treatment that is only just gaining respect and I think that adding this childlike element is going to turn off both patients and practitioners who may have been somewhat willing to give this a try.

  • Carlton November 2nd, 2012 at 4:07 AM #2

    I have to disagree with Robyn ( soory!) because I think that especially for a child, many times they are looking for someone or something to hold onto, to bond with, and even a stuffed animal can offer that kind of love for them. Okay, so it’s not traditional or exactly the same that you would experience with a live animal. Big deal. For many of these kids this may be the first thing that they have ever had in their lives that gives them aid and comfort and helps them to feel at peace and loved. That’s all many of them are looking for, and if this is what makes them feel safe then I have no problems at all with this being used as a part of their therapeutic healing.

  • debbie November 2nd, 2012 at 11:23 PM #3

    notice how many children hold on to stuffed tots when in bed or otherwise when they need comfort?well that is enough to say just the sense of someone being with you is important and the fact that it is a stuffed to is only secondary.

  • DonutFTW November 3rd, 2012 at 4:46 AM #4

    I took out a big stuffed toy after reading this article. I was hoping to be comforted or at least provide some relief. I was dumped. I felt so much betrayal and guilt.

    However when I looked at the stuffed dog, all it did was remind me about him. I kept strangling the stuffed dog. It has done except made me sadder that I have lost my inner child who used to play with stuffed toy.

  • Ursula November 4th, 2012 at 6:25 AM #5

    This shouldn’t be about what we have lost but to be able to see past that at the things that we have gained. If it is something that you know will make you sad, then ebst to look for an alternative solution.

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