Animal-assisted therapy is a term used to describe the use of trained dogs or other animals in structured therapeutic practices aimed at helping human beings with specific health problems. Current evidence indicates that several groups of people—including individuals with cancer, serious heart problems and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—can benefit from this form of therapy. In a study published in 2009 in Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, researchers from Mississippi State University and Lindsey Wilson College assessed the potential of animal-assisted therapy to help people affected by substance abuse or substance addiction. The researchers concluded that this form of therapy can improve substance treatment by strengthening the therapeutic alliance that forms between therapists and their patients/clients.
Animal-assisted therapy is a specific form of pet therapy. It differs from the use of dogs or other animals in a group of activities, known as animal-assisted activities, which rely on animal interactions to generally brighten the moods of people such as hospitalized patients and nursing home residents, or to otherwise act as sources of pleasure or diversion. In contrast to this use of animals, animal-assisted therapy relies on trained dogs or other animals to help doctors or therapists achieve concrete goals in the treatment of people affected by significant health concerns. The animals used in this form of therapy receive extensive instruction on how to interact well with human beings in a range of circumstances. Not all animals can meet the requirements for this type of fruitful interaction, and trainers are highly selective about the animals they pick for involvement in assisted therapy programs.
Before a session of animal-assisted therapy begins, a client or patient’s doctor will typically explain the basics of the approach and ask permission to bring in the animal. After receiving permission, a trainer or handler will accompany the animal while the client/patient has a chance to interact with the animal, his or her doctor and the animal’s handler. Although animal-assisted therapy frequently takes place in a hospital or other institutionalized setting, it can also take place in other treatment settings.
The Therapeutic Alliance
The therapeutic alliance is a bond that forms between therapists and their patients or clients as the course of therapy proceeds over time. Researchers and health professionals are well aware that the establishment and continued maintenance of this type bond can increase the positive effects of therapy participation and help clients/patients successfully achieve their treatment goals. Therapists work to establish and sustain an effective therapeutic alliance by doing such things as treating their clients and patients in a warm and respectful manner, paying close attention to the shifting tone of each therapeutic interaction, maintaining a trustworthy demeanor and staying away from attitudes or approaches that can alienate or estrange a client or patient.
Usefulness in Substance Treatment
In the study published in Anthrozoos, the researchers used an assessment of 231 individuals affected by substance abuse or addiction to gauge the impact of animal-assisted therapy on the therapeutic alliance. All of these 231 participants were enrolled in residential programs that used group-counseling sessions in their treatment regime. One hundred thirty-five of the participants interacted with a trained therapy dog in a total of 26 counseling sessions. The remaining 96 participants did not interact with a therapy dog during treatment. The researchers used a questionnaire called the Helping Alliance Questionnaire to probe the strength of the therapeutic alliances formed in each of the two groups.
After completing their analysis of the gathered data, the researchers found that, when compared to the study participants who did not interact with a therapy dog as part of their treatment, the participants who did interact with a therapy dog generally had a more favorable perspective on the alliances formed with their therapists. Included among the people who had an affirmative take on the impact of animal-assisted therapy were people affected by methamphetamine dependence/addiction, cannabis dependence/addiction and problems related to the simultaneous use of two or more substances.
Significance and Considerations
The authors of the study published in Anthrozoos note that several other subgroups of patients, including people who owned pets and people in treatment as a result of a court order, also had an improved perspective on the therapeutic alliance after participating in animal-assisted therapy. The study’s authors concluded that animal-assisted therapy is a treatment with proven effectiveness that has a productive place among the approaches used by substance addiction programs.