The Power of Animal Therapy

A person playing with a friendly dog.

The Power of Animal Therapy

There are many types of therapeutic modalities that are helpful for different people for a number of reasons. One therapeutic modality that has been very successful for people in recovery is animal therapy. Animals, particularly dogs, can help reach and heal in ways that traditional therapy may not be able to. The special connection that humans have with animals gives animal therapy its unique power in healing.

The Power of Dogs in Non-Verbal Communication

Some clients struggle with verbal communication, particularly when opening up about their emotions or about traumatic events from their past. This is especially true of clients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anxiety. In traditional therapy, it can take many sessions for a therapist to help a client feel safe enough to talk about themselves.

Dogs can create immediate bonds with clients, which is why they are so often used to comfort people in hospitals, after natural disasters, or while grieving the loss of a loved one. This is also why dogs are so often used as emotional support animals. There is a special connection that humans and dogs have that can be very helpful in the therapeutic process of healing. 

Clients are able to communicate with the dogs by interacting with them non-verbally, establishing feelings of trust and safety within the therapeutic setting that allow them to open up and communicate verbally more quickly than they would without the animal. Having the dog there as a companion also helps them feel safe as they share about themselves.

Animal Assisted Therapy as a Form of Healing

The use of animal-assisted therapy can decrease feelings of loneliness and increase feelings of happiness and satisfaction. While this may seem obvious to those who have pets or have had contact with animals, animals help improve mood and provide companionship that can be important, especially in early recovery. Providing these positive emotional boosts can also help provide healing during recovery, helping clients get through difficult days and improving their emotional resilience.

The Power of Dog Therapy and Stress Reduction

Having dogs in therapy can be a powerful source of stress reduction for clients. Not only can petting dogs help lower blood pressure, but interacting with animals can also lower your cortisol levels, the hormone which rises with stress. These physiological responses to animals in the therapeutic setting demonstrate the power that dogs can have on clients as they work through challenging emotions and memories.

Dogs can lower anxiety levels in clients and can also decrease aggressive responses and behaviors during therapy. They can serve as calming, soothing influences in an environment that can be extremely emotional and intense. Dogs in therapy can help create an environment that feels less stressful for the client and can improve the overall outcome of the therapy sessions.

Why Therapy Dogs Help Nurture Trust

Those who are in recovery have often been through a lot in their lives—from trauma, abuse, addiction, and experiencing challenging mental health disorders—and trust may not be easy for them. Learning to trust again can be particularly challenging for those who have survived trauma. Yet therapy dogs can help clients learn to trust again more easily because of the type of relationship they have with people.

Dogs are more willing to offer their trust in people, which can be a new sensation for some clients. These same clients can return that trust by learning to respect the dog’s boundaries, learning to care for the animal, and helping to be responsible for the dog’s emotional well-being. This can create a symbiotic relationship within therapy that also helps nurture and develop a mutual sense of trust that can eventually be transferred over to human relationships as well.

How Working With Animals Increases Confidence

Clients who work with dogs in therapy can also experience improved self-esteem and increased confidence as they have successful interactions with the animals. Social interactions can be very difficult for many people, and learning appropriate boundaries and ways to communicate, even non-verbally, can be challenging. Being able to work with dogs and have them reciprocate positive interactions can help clients feel better about themselves and improve their ability to interact with humans as well.

Interacting with animals can help teach skills like empathy and understanding that can transfer over to relationships with other people. Dogs can often be more loving, patient, and forgiving than people, and thus provide excellent companions in the therapeutic process. For all of these and so many other reasons, using dogs in therapy can be a powerful experience for everyone.