Feb 11

Animal Assisted Therapy That’s Office-Based

Although I have colleagues whose dogs or cats spend time in their offices, they’re not there explicitly as animal assisted therapy. On the other hand, there are therapists, I’ve learned, whose mission actually does include partnering with assistants of the animal kind.

One such therapist is Ellen Winston, recently featured in Alexandra Sifflin’s Time article on this topic. An online search found that her practice, Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado, was co-founded by Dr. Linda Chassman, and is located at Barking C.A.A.T. Ranch (Center for Animal Assisted Therapy), Lakewood.

Their website introduces us to their “animal partners,” which include dogs, cats, horses, a goat, a rabbit, and two rats—yes, rats— “adorable and sweet” Lucy and Ethel.

Also on their site is a list of some of the ways in which “animals enrich the therapy environment for clients.” (This does not mean that all of their clients must participate in this type of therapy; some may want or need a pet-free space.)

  • Most clients naturally feel comfortable with animals and have positive feelings when in an animal’s presence. This makes the counseling process more positive and enjoyable for clients. They look forward to seeing their animal co-therapist each week.
  • We have found that when an animal is present couples are able to focus more on relevant issues in the present, rather than on the anger of the past or fears of the future. This makes therapy time more productive.
  • Research has found that clients are often more motivated and invested in the treatment process when a therapy animal is present.
  • Each of our therapy animals have been rescued and have their own stories. This makes the animals particularly sensitive to the fears, stress and anxiety of others. Our therapy animals are particularly calming and nurturing to our clients.
  • We can often develop creative and fun interventions using the animals that help address the client’s issues without creating more stress.
  • Because clients can address issues faster when animals are present, therapy takes less time and is therefore more cost-effective.

This isn’t the only practice offering such services; increasingly, other therapists across the country are offering something along this vein. Per the Wall Street Journal, for example, California therapist Lois Abrams, who since 1999 has had two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Duke and Romeo, involved in her office work.

Abrams perceives them as “seeing heart dogs” because each has a talent for finding a specific type of disorder—Duke situates himself on the floor next to the those with anxiety disorders, and Romeo sits on the couch next to those with depression. Abrams alleges the latter once detected depression in a patient before she did.

Another part of her practice involves responding to disaster and traumas with the aid of Duke.

How do animals who assist therapists get rewarded for their role? you might ask, as did the WSJ. Answers range from “lots of cookies” to presents from patients to the internal satisfaction of doing an important job.

Want more information? In recent years more and more articles have been available online about animal-assisted therapy research and ideas. Another resource is the IAHAIO, or International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations, which unites interested parties from across the world and holds an annual conference.

Nov 12

Animal-Assisted Therapy for Veterans: Not Just Dogs

The Chicago Tribune reported last month that The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) suspended what would have been a major research study about animal-assisted therapy, specifically regarding the pairing of service dogs with veterans diagnosed with PTSD. Moreover, “the VA indicated that it no longer will support service dogs paired with veterans diagnosed with PTSD,” though they’ll continue pairing dogs with vets who have physical disabilities.

This news has been puzzling and upsetting to many involved and will mean that non-VA efforts will be more needed than ever, as there is much anecdotal evidence, and some scientific, to show that vets with PTSD are significantly helped by having service dogs.

Besides dogs, other examples of animal-assisted therapy species are cats, birds, horses, and dolphins. As stated in an article from Elements Behavioral Health, two of the main reasons various types of animals can be helpful to vets with PTSD are because they demand care—thus necessitating a shift in focus outside of oneself—and they can offer wholehearted acceptance and affection.

More specifically:

In the case of horses, there is another benefit. Anyone who has ever taken a Saturday trail ride has been told to relax because the horse perceives and reacts to the emotional state of its rider. In fact, horses don’t simply react; instead they reflect the mood of the person handling them. If the human’s mood is positive and relaxed the horse will mimic that attitude. Conversely, if the human’s attitude is negative the horse will adopt a negative mood. This can be helpful for the PTSD patient as it helps them to recognize how their own moods and attitudes affect those around them. Many treatment centers use equine-assisted therapy to treat a number of dual diagnoses.

Update, 2022: Below is a brief video clip about equine-assisted therapy for vets.

According to recent news, a pilot program was conducted just this past week in California that offered 10 veterans with brain trauma or PTSD some introductory dolphin therapy.

Finally, although there’s a lot online about animal-assisted therapy for humans, very little is said about human-assisted therapy for animal veterans (i.e., dogs)—perhaps because the latter don’t have enough of a “voice,” online or otherwise. In fact, military service dogs too often return home with “canine PTSD.” This article will tell you more.