Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) and animal-assisted activities (AAA) are increasingly used to boost the benefits traditional psychotherapy and counseling. People from diverse backgrounds and facing a wide range of physical, emotional, and psychological struggles have found not only comfort, but also growth and healing through animal-assisted psychotherapy. The premise is simple: the bond between humans and animals reaches beyond words, and an animal’s presence can offer a powerful level of comfort and companionship that is unconditional and runs very deep.
In many cases, patients find a therapist or counselor suggesting that they bring a pet into their home. For people dealing with depression, loneliness and grief, a cat or dog provides comfort, affection, and companionship that help lift the spirit and make one feel less alone in the world. For people overwhelmed by stress or anxiety, the time spent petting or playing with a pet can help regain a sense of calm and can interject much-needed lighthearted moments into a situation that may otherwise feel overwhelming. For people whose mental health issues have become in some way debilitating, the responsibility and consistency of having an animal around can help establish routine. For those who feel lonely or socially anxious, taking a dog on a walk can be an avenue toward getting to know the neighbors.
There are also times when a psychotherapist will recommend animal-assisted therapy, not just pet ownership, for a very specific condition. For example, it is not uncommon for a therapist to suggest equine-assisted therapy for a client who has survived trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, combat, or a major disaster. Horses can be skittish and it make take awhile to earn one’s trust. In this way, trauma survivors can slowly learn to trust the horse—and themselves—while overcoming the upsetting aftermath of the traumatic experience. One of the newest potential uses for animal-assisted therapy is to help children who have been neglected learn to establish healthy bonds with other people.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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