The Power of Pet Therapy

By Allison White, ACSW, LCSW, CCDP-D | Nov. 23, 2016

 

I remember when I was seven, my Great-Uncle Benji said to my parents, “Allison needs a dog.” It was at that time, my life changed. I was a very quiet, reserved kid, but dogs brought me out of my shell. They were with me during good times, painful times and major life events—and loved me no matter how I reacted to these situations. They remained stable forces in my life, even during the darkest turmoil.

Nowadays, I work with clients who live with depression, anxiety and addictions, and they don’t always feel like there is hope. It’s hard for them to see light in the midst of their darkness, and peace seems so far away. But when I use my dogs during pet therapy visits, I see how animals brighten up a person’s mood, even if it’s for a short time. That moment allows a small trickle of light into that person’s heart, which may not have been there before.

During one session in particular, a client asked if she could get on the floor because she wanted to talk to my therapy dog about something “very important.” She buried her head into my dog’s fur and talked about the horrible week she had endured. Stroking my dog’s fur, my client was overcome with a sense of calm in a way I could not have accomplished by merely talking with her. No judgments, no expectations—just a furry hug.

When we’re facing despair, loneliness, chronic health issues, depression, addictions, or anything beyond our ability to cope, a pet can help ease the pain. He or she can give us a reason to get out of our thoughts to focus on a sense of purpose. The relationship we have with our pets is real and symbiotic—what I give to my pets comes back to me in ways that can’t be measured.

Research shows the benefits of pet therapy (in fact, its first known use dates back to the 9th century!). Boris Levinson was the first clinician to truly introduce the value of animals in a therapeutic environment. In the 1960s, Levinson reported that having his dog present at talk therapy sessions led to increased communication, increased self-esteem and increased willingness to disclose difficult experiences. Ever since, people have been turning to pets for comfort and support during periods of emotional turmoil. Hugging and speaking with a pet who won’t judge you for your feelings or thoughts is cathartic and helps people get through rough times. Pets also reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression, giving people a reason to get up in the morning. Other benefits are unconditional love, acceptance, a “buddy” that encourages physical activity, which leads to healthier lifestyles.

If you’re unable to own a pet, there are many ways to reap the benefits of a pet relationship. Volunteering at a local shelter or helping rescue groups or pet therapy organizations such as Pet Partners (a national organization that promotes positive human-animal interactions) are ways to save pets’ lives, and possibly your own.

 

Allison is a licensed clinical social worker with 25 years of experience in the mental health field. She has worked at BJC Behavioral Health for 23 years and has been a clinical supervisor of a continuous treatment team for the past 21 years. Allison has been a volunteer for Support Dog’s Inc. for the past 9 years, has had two certified TOUCH therapy dogs, one of which was also certified in animal-assisted crisis response.

Comments
Louise Fortin
My cat has a neurological disability. Besides living with Mental Illness, I also have a neurological injury that I live with. The shelter where I found her, called her Tippy because she regularly tips over and can not land on our fours. They didn't expect that she would be adopted, but right away I saw that she was my perfect match. Talking to myself calms me down. So now I'm talking to her. she seams to recognize when I am too hyper or anxious and she comes and sits at my feet until I notice her. She doesn't meow. I live alone, but I'm not alone because I can talk to her.
12/12/2016 5:22:04 PM

Thea
Where can I find an affordable hypoallergenic dog for my son who has several mental health issues? Thanks!
12/6/2016 5:26:08 PM

Mim Neiman
Is this something that someone who wants to help mentally ill, handicapped, disadvantaged, etc people & who loves animals & who wants to help animals of all sorts, including abused/ neglected/ abandoned/ &/or perfectly fine dogs or other animals, as suited, would be attractive to you for involvement in / doing a program to satisfy human & animal needs?
12/2/2016 3:04:21 PM

Dana Hatfield
I had just lost my job, and knew I had no right to take on this amazing puppy. I kept trying to find him a home, but he had adopted me. we wound up homeless for 5yrs, and found I have seizures, and he just knew how to take care of me. I gave him my everything, and then some. he same did . kept me from commiting suicide. he showed me what it felt like to a mother. Heven help anyone who threatened him. we spent nearly 24/7 together for 13yrs. he blessed me for 13 yrs, kept me alive, touched every life with joy. Yes, at first I thought I was going to lose my mind when I put him down. I was there for his first breath, and for his last. Bless You My Son Bear, See You At The The Bridge. Love, Mommie
12/2/2016 12:35:29 PM

Mike A
This gives me a lot of hope for my brother
12/1/2016 12:55:49 PM

Amy Mckeever, LCSW
Thank you for this lovely post! Couldn't agree more. You said it perfectly.
12/1/2016 11:35:55 AM

Alison Paine
I would love to see if you have worked with any local animal shelters to encourage them to decrease or remove their adoption fee for those living with mental health issues who can't afford the fee... (it would mean letting local therapists know of the program too..) Have you considered this? Sometimes all we have to do is ask!
12/1/2016 10:34:36 AM

Robin Dilger
I don't really want it made visible to everyone; I just would like some information.
Thank you.
12/1/2016 9:58:54 AM

Robin Dilger
How does one get a therapy dog or have an already existing pet identified as a therapy dog? This would be for my daughter who has a significant mental illness.
Thank you.
12/1/2016 9:58:17 AM

Kim
Loved this post. Very informative.
12/1/2016 9:17:37 AM

Margie
Thank you for your article. Three different dogs each got me through some of my darkest days and brought much needed unconditional love. Princess, a german shepard mix, was there about age nine till about 19. Cinnamon was "picked" from the shelter about 8 months after getting married, 1 month after getting a house and 1 month before my oldest son was born. She lasted longer than the marriage. She was a chow - lab mix, who let me think I was in charge. She had a sweet 16 party before I had to put her to sleep. Three years later, we got Scrappy from the shelter. The amount of relief from serious depression was noticed even to non animal people. He is helping with the current chapter, moving from surviving to thriving. He is a lab - red heeler mix and was in the Shy Dog program to help him trust humans again at 8 yrs old. To say devoted to me is an understatement!
12/1/2016 8:58:34 AM

John Baker
Barnaby Cat change my life.
12/1/2016 8:37:54 AM

Monique P Jevne
I am a happy woman of 64 living with schizophrenia. I recently bought home my first puppy and will begin Service Dog training with her next month. Thank you for writing succinctly about this topic as I've noticed a bond developing between my puppy and I already. My husband and I recently adopted a 6 year old boy who is disabled and the puppy is also to bond with him too!! It's been lovely. Our son has been with us since he was 4 years old, calls Kenya the "Best Dog in the World".
12/1/2016 5:49:39 AM

Angela Whitaker
The only thing that concerns me is can I still take care of a dog if a psychotic moment.
11/30/2016 9:53:19 PM

Angela Whitaker
I was thinking of getting a dog for easing the pangs of loneliness and despair. What I don't know is would I still be able be able to care for a dog if I was having psychotic moments.
11/30/2016 9:50:50 PM

Carla McMaster
It would be good of you to make people aware of ESA's - emotional support animals if a person is living somewhere that doesn't allow animals they CAN get an emotional support animal as long as they have a "mental health issues" and have a doctor who supports them in the process (a letter from their doctor is all they need). Just thought I'd suggest it since most people do not seem to know this is a possibility. My black lab was such a gift! And he has made such a difference in my life I can't imagine how I would even be alive today if it hadn't been suggested by my psychologist
11/30/2016 9:09:04 PM

Paula
I do agree pet therapy does work
11/29/2016 12:20:51 PM

Deborah
I love dogs and would like to have one yet I live in rentals. Over 9 years ago I meet Smokey, a normal white face *****atiel that was not very cared for at a preschool. As I learned about them I started to work with her eventually she completely attached to me. She went everywhere with me (after her wings were clipped). She even moved with me back to the Midwest. I could not believe how blessed I was to meet her. Rentals will usually allow birds so I am hooked. Even though she has passed at around 17/18 years old she introduced me to something wonderful. I now have another normal white faced named Bella, she was another rescue. Pets are so amazing when dealing with Mental illness. I could not live without here.
11/28/2016 2:05:31 PM

David Stanley
Animal assist: Farm Stays are growing in popularity but not just for the immediate relaxation that comes from being in the quiet countryside but also for the therapeutic affect the interaction with the farm animals can provide. Much better than the nonstop internet action. And with places like Morning Song Farm there's also healthy organic fruit. See http://morningsongfarm.com/.
11/26/2016 9:08:26 PM

John Boquist
I have been working with a good therapist who is helping me with my anger and Bi-polar. I have been in the hospital for over a month this year. I wish I could get better, but I am self destructive, and become suicidal thoughts all the time. I am on medication for the BPT, PTSD and Bi-polar. I am afraid of being able to get my mind to shut off at night. I am wanting to die, for this to be over, but I am 62 yrs old and I still battle with the illnesses. You are probably not going to be able to do anything about it, but I just left the hospital and don't want to go back. My wife thinks that I am responsible for being up and down. I have worked on myself for years to come to grips with being mentally ill.
11/25/2016 3:30:03 AM

Charles Cogshell Psy., B.A.
Great article, very profound and heart warming!
11/23/2016 11:59:18 AM

Adriana Fernandez
Does in heave to be classified as disabled to obtain a service dog for depression, PTSD and anxiety?
11/23/2016 11:54:39 AM

Stella
My mother suffered from mental illness and received shock treatments both in 1947 and in 1951. She was very jealous of any attention that I received as a small girl, we were always at odds. My mother could be very mean. At times of overwhelming sadness I would go to our dog, Jim, and bury my head in his coat and cry and cry. He was the connection for me to be able to express my feelings, and he allowed me to do so. A pet is loyal, has an unconditional bond, and a way for a child to express feelings without verbalizing a word. To this day I am grateful beyond measure that Jim was there in my life, he made my world less lonely and made it a brighter place.
12/2/2016 7:17:37 AM

PAULINE FIFE
I know without research that pets can help with depression and when you feel you can't get through the day. I keep pet cats and they are always there to love and accept me when I feel sick or depressed. Dogs are good, too.
12/2/2016 10:39:35 AM

Michelle Pellin
I totally agree with all of this, as my previous profession before working as a case manager with ABI individuals, was in recreation therapy. However, as I now work with clients who are living in the community, I find that getting a pet therapist to see these folks is difficult, as pet therapists are volunteers who only wants to go to senior centers, hospitals, nursing homes, etc, and not individual homes. Any suggestions would be appreciated, as I have many ABI clients who would benefit.
12/2/2016 11:17:25 AM

Danielle Pettyjohn
I am interested in animal-assisted therapy. I was wondering if you could help me and let me know how to go about doing this. I will graduate with my MSW in August and I plan to take the licensure exam for my LMSW. What would my next steps be and how do I go about getting my pet certified?
12/8/2016 10:55:01 AM

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