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Benefits of Pet Therapy in the Recovery Process

“We suggest that the dog interaction activities and/or the dog itself could potentially serve as a non-drug stimulus that may heighten the adolescents’ response to naturally-occurring stimuli, therefore potentially helping to restore the brain’s normal process.” ~ lead researcher Lindsay Ellsworth, Washington State University Addiction is a highly individualized disease that can manifest with an extremely wide variance of symptoms and severity among those who suffer from it. This makes treatment particularly problematic because what works for one person or group of people might not be effective on someone else. It is for this reason that there are so many different approaches and treatment plans available – 12-Step programs, psychological counseling, group therapy, medication-assisted recovery, going “cold turkey”, exercise/nutrition-based approaches, spirituality-focused retreats, intensive inpatient hospital stays, convenient weekend-only outpatient options, and the list goes on and on and on. This is actually a good thing. With so many different treatment options available, there is almost certain to be something for everyone. If one particular approach fails, there is merit be found elsewhere. One of the most encouraging new approaches to substance abuse treatment that is gaining exposure and popularity is a form of pet therapy called “animal-assisted therapy”, and it seems to offer addicts and alcoholics what most of them have been sorely lacking – a real connection with another living thing.

Creating Stronger Bonds

Animal-assisted therapy refers to the therapeutic use of specially-trained dogs or other animals to interact with people suffering from specific illnesses or health problems, such as cancer, PTSD, heart problems, and now, addiction. In 2009, a study entitled Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People & Animals was published jointly by Mississippi State University and Lindsey Wilson College. The purpose of the study was to assess how animal-assisted therapy might help individuals suffering from drug addiction or alcoholism. The researchers reached the conclusion that this approach can have a positive effect on substance abuse therapy because it strengthens the therapeutic bond between the patient and the therapist. Animal-assisted therapy is more than just using animals to improve the moods of patients in hospital-type settings, although the animals can and do serve in that intrinsically-valuable capacity. Specifically, the animals – usually dogs, but not always – are extensively trained to interact with the patient during therapy sessions. It was found that study participants interacting with a therapy dog had a more favorable opinion of the patient-therapist relationship than those participants who did not interact with a dog. As mentioned above, another positive effect is a bolstering of the patient’s self-esteem. Alcoholics and addicts usually suffer from an extremely negatively warped self-image. The unconditional love that they receive from their therapy animal greatly boosts the patient’s self-esteem.

A Matter of Biology and Body Chemistry

Part of the reason for the extremely powerful bond between the patient and if their therapy animal is due to simple biology. In Frontiers in Psychology, Dr. Andrea Beetz found that interacting with animals increases an individual’s production of oxytocin – “the bonding hormone”. Dr. Seetz’s conclusions are echoed elsewhere. In April of this year, a paper entitled “Oxytocin-Gaze Positive Loop and the Co-Evolution of Human-Dog Bonds” was published, describing how mutual gazing – eye contact – between a human and a dog spurs increased oxytocin production in both. Even more encouraging, there is new research that suggests that merely playing with dogs can help improve the moods of teenagers receiving inpatient treatment for drug abuse or alcoholism, by stimulating the production and release of dopamine – the body’s “feel-good” chemical. Researchers at Washington State University postulate that positive interaction with dogs in a therapeutic setting may stimulate the release of the body’s natural opioids within the brain. In an animal-assisted addiction rehab program, this could mean that interaction with therapy dogs could aid in the restoration and normalization of the brain’s pleasure centers. These are the areas of the brain that are abnormally changed during active addiction and drug abuse.

Of Particular Benefit to Teenagers

During the study, teenagers who were in an inpatient substance abuse rehabilitation facility and who were also being treated for co-occurring mental disorders such as depression, PTSD, or hyperactivity self-reported that their symptoms were greatly alleviated when they were allowed to play with therapy dogs. These teenagers were observed experiencing increased attentiveness and heightened joy, prompting lead researcher Lindsay Ellsworth of Washington State University to remark, “We found one of the most robust effects of interacting with the dogs was increased joviality. Some of the words the boys used to describe their moods after working with the dogs were – “excited”, “energetic”, and “happy”.” There is also evidence that interacting with therapy animals can reduce the amount of stress hormones in the body, such as norepinephrine and adrenaline, can improve the immune system, can aid in pain management, can reduce aggression, can enhance empathy, can promote learning, and can engender more trust toward other people.

Not Just for Dogs

Although dogs are the most common therapy partners used in animal-assisted addiction rehabilitation, they are not the only species that can be paired with people in recovery to help build self-esteem and self-confidence. Equine-assisted psychotherapy, long-established as an assistive program for people with physical abilities, has begun to emerge as a viable supplement to other, more traditional types of substance abuse treatment. There are a few reasons why this seems to be the case. First, the patients in recovery relearn how to communicate. Horses are exceptionally responsive creatures, and the immediate feedback they provide can help guide their human counterparts down the path of rebuilding their relationship skills. Dede Beasley, both an equine-assisted psychotherapist certified by the National American Handicapped Riders Association and a horseback riding instructor with national certification from the Council for Horsemanship and Safety, says, “I believe (horses) interact with us as if we’re other herd animals. It’s about mutuality and reciprocity, having relationships that are equal and fair.” Heather Kuhl, a certified equine-assisted therapist, says that her therapy regimen creates “situations and activities that provide a potential for challenge, ambiguity, emotional connection, independence, and anxiety”. In addition to treating addiction, equine-assisted psychotherapy has been used to treat self-esteem issues, chronic pain, familial/marital conflict, and depression. One of the major goals of addiction treatment is to teach individuals how to make better life choices all on their own. The ability to make good life choices is greatly demonstrated by a person’s relationship with others. “…EAP assists individuals with learning new ways to relate to others as well and enriching their own lives in the process“, said Kuhl. Beasley concurs, saying “The goal is for them to learn to be introspective and to make a decision out of that.”