I think we can all agree, humans don’t deserve the love we get from animals. There is nothing on this world that is purer than the bond between animals and people. Most people only really use social media to watchdog videos these days (or is that just me?) and we are constantly bombarded with the beautiful stories of therapy pets, people saving animals, and animals saving people.
No matter how stressful our days are, how much our coworker annoyed us, or the chaos happening in the world around us, our pets love us through it all, and just want to be loved in return. The bond is beautiful, and the compassion they unreservedly give us is why pet therapy is such a useful tool in addiction treatment.
What is Pet Therapy?
In the field of addiction and mental health treatment, pet therapy has been exploding onto the scene for its many benefits across a wide variety of areas. Many facilities utilize dogs, cats, and horses as the main animals in pet therapy, and the results are astounding.
Of all the beautiful animal creatures on the planet, these three have been, so far, the most effective when it comes to pet therapy. Primarily because they are most commonly around humans, they have proven to be extremely empathetic, compassionate, and gentle when working in the rehabilitation field. That doesn’t mean that any other animal can’t be a pet therapy animal, as people have posted videos using everything from lambs to donkeys to ducks!
The main goal of pet therapy is to utilize specially trained and certified animals as a therapeutic presence for people in substance abuse treatment. Research has shown that pet therapy is a massively beneficial therapeutic tool in processing and recovering from either addiction, eating disorders, mental disorders, learning disabilities, mood disorders, and more!
Benefits of Pet Therapy in Addiction Treatment
Early recovery can be a real roller coaster of emotions. With all of the mood swings, physical changes, and mental states throughout the initial withdrawal and post-acute withdrawal stages, it’s no wonder why many people relapse. When combined with all of the intensive psychological, emotional, and in-depth trauma work that occurs in substance abuse treatment, this can be a very challenging time for those new to recovery. Pet therapy offers a compassionate and peaceful environment for some of this work to take place.
Pet therapy allows people to feel human. We have been evolutionarily programmed to see animals as our teammates in life. Animals are so beneficial in the treatment and therapeutic setting because they allow many people, especially those who were raised with animals, to feel normal. It is common for people in treatment to begin to feel like they are “trapped” and having an animal around reminds them of the comforts of home.
A lot of people in substance abuse treatment have a pretty hard time opening up at first. Pet therapy allows people to feel more comfortable, and to start to break down some of the walls they have built up. It is also extremely common for people to suffer from dual diagnosis disorders that allows them to feel or process emotions, nevertheless express them in a constructive way. This can lead to stress and frustration, further separating them and blocking them off. Pet therapy provides a perfect way to calm that tension, and encourage growth. Through petting, snuggling, and even just being around a therapy pet, many people find they can stay calm and centered when discussing difficult emotions.
Social Cues through Pet Therapy
For many, the subtle art of social interactions is lost or never fully developed due to addiction and mental disorders. The walls that have been built, the traumas that were experienced, and the isolation from society can seriously detriment a person’s ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. Pet therapy can help people to “re-learn” how to read people’s social cues, behaviors, and emotional states.
Animals are extremely keen to humans social cues and are often expressive in their own emotional “cues”. For example, when horses put their ears back when they are distressed, or when cats hiss, or when dogs growl. Being aware and understanding of an animal’s social cues can help people to become more understanding of social cues in their own relationships and day to day interactions.
My Experience With Pet Therapy
During my addiction, I adopted a little puppy from a kill shelter. He stayed by my side throughout my addiction, and was witness to a lot of horrible situations, he was home twice when we got robbed, and he watched his owner go through some pretty rough times. All the while, just being a good boy and loving his mom.
When I got sober, my mom took care of my dog for me, and when I kept relapsing I thought I would never see him again. After a year, the dog’s father got sober too and did a better job at that than I did. He ended up getting a job at the same facility that he got sober at, and after a little while, he got our dog Therapy Certified.
We are now both sober, working for the same facility, at a beautiful facility in nature where the dog gets to interact with all of the staff and individuals that come through the doors to seek treatment. I cannot describe the feeling of calm that comes over the individuals, when they are extremely upset after a therapy session, or going through a grieving process of working through previous trauma, and the dog goes to them and lays his head on their lap or lays his whole body across their feet. Instantly, the person is able to calm down, pet him, and feel joy again.
The dog has prevented countless patients from leaving against medical advice, and he has even broken up some fights among members of the community. For clients that are coming in for the first time, many of them state that they would have left if the dog wasn’t in the room with them when they were doing they admittance paperwork. He has calmed individuals who were in the midst of a self-harm episode, and his playful spirit shows people that they can laugh and have fun in sobriety.
He provides a feeling of calm and understanding that many people find solace in. This is the same with all other therapy pets. They save lives.