Animal-Assisted Therapy

Dog Crazy: All About Animal-Assisted Therapy

March 30, 2019

Australians love their animals! Did you know that, according to the RSPCA, over 60% of Aussie homes have pets, with dogs being the most popular pet? There is estimated to be more than 24 million pets in Australia – they nearly outnumber us! The benefits of pet ownership are significant, both physically and psychologically.

Physical benefits include increased cardiovascular health and increased activity, fewer GP visits, and children who have grown up with a dog may have a stronger immune system and reduced allergies, and are less likely to miss days of school due to illness!

Psychological benefits included increased social connectedness and social skills, reported decreased levels of depression, and enhanced coping skills when dealing with stress or grief. Children with pets were found to seem more empathetic and have higher self-esteem, while teenagers with pets reported a more positive outlook on life, and reported lower levels of despair, boredom and loneliness.

A recent study found that Australian ownership of dogs and cats saved around $3.86 billion in health spending in ONE year!

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-Assisted Therapy involves the use of animals (usually dogs or horses) within therapy. The psychological benefits of animals is probably not news to anyone! But recently there has been a large amount of research into Animal-Assisted Therapy that has led to an increase in services available for both adults and children. Animal-Assisted Therapy is usually used alongside other evidence-based interventions – like adding a dog booster shot to an already beneficial intervention!

While it seems relatively new, Animal-Assisted Therapy actually has a long history, with physicians in Ancient Greece and Medieval Belgium using animals to lift the spirits of patients and to provide them companionship. In the 1800’s, Florence Nightingale noted that pets appeared to reduce anxiety and stress in psychiatric patients. This then led to the proposing the idea of the human-animal bond, which described how humans require animal and nature interaction to counteract stress and busyness of everyday life. Even Dr Sigmund Freud used his pet dog in his sessions to calm young people with anxiety!

How does Animal-Assisted Therapy help?

Human-Animal Bond

Does spending time patting a dog make you feel happy? Do you feel calmer after cuddling with a cat? The human-animal bond is thought to be why Animal-Assisted Therapy is beneficial for many people. Human-animal interaction can influence physiological changes in both animals and humans! Human-animal contact has been shown to increase oxytocin levels and lower cortisol levels, which leads to slower heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and a sense of calm and comfort. This can lead to a reduction of reported anxiety or stress!

General Mental Health:

Animal-Assisted Therapy has many benefits, besides having a cute puppy to pat! Some of these include:

• Reduction of stress and anxiety
• Increased social interaction
• Increased motivation
• Reduced anhedonia
• Improved mood
• Increased self esteem
• Reduced anger and aggression
• Improved engagement with therapy

Did you know 15 mins of time spent with a dog increases oxytocin and provides a ‘feel-good’ response? And 30 mins leads to a reduction in situational anxiety!

Animal-Assisted Therapy can be a helpful addition to evidence-based interventions for many reasons, and across the research it has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression by 19-72%, anxiety by 21-65% and PTSD by 13-80%.

Some reasons found for this are:

1) Non-judgmental approach: Dogs provide a non-conditional affection and support, and a non-judgmental presence which can be very comforting and help reduce concerns around stigma.
2) Non-verbal communication: People who have trouble expressing themselves in therapy can often find animals to be very understanding and aware. Dogs can often also pick up on small emotional shifts or changes, and respond, providing unspoken comfort or grounding without any pressure.
3) Safety: Animals can help people feel safer and protected, as well as lower heart rate, reduce hypervigilence and create a space that encourages open communication and emotional expression.
4) Grounding: The act of patting a dog reduces stress and anxiety by increasing oxytocin levels and decreasing cortisol levels. It also serves as a grounding tool, keeping you in the present moment and reducing dissociation or re-experiencing symptoms.

Meet Dexter:

Dexter is a certified Therapy Dog and an 8 year old Labrador Retriever.

Animal-Assisted Therapy

This means he sometimes comes to work with me in my role as a Clinical Psychologist and he tries to make people feel calmer or happier. Dexter’s presence in the room can help reduce anxiety or distress and improve mood. Dexter provides non-judgmental support and comfort in the therapeutic environment, and he is always happy to see people! He can help ground people during distress, and will be by their side whenever they need it. Dexter can actually help you slow your breathing when anxious, and patting him will produce an automatic relaxation response!

If you’re interested in knowing more about Animal-Assisted Therapy with Stephanie Zylstra, don’t hesitate to contact Attuned Psychology here to speak with our admin team. You can ask to have a session with Stephanie and Dexter when you phone to book an appointment at our Glenelg practice or North Adelaide practice.

Stephanie Zylstra

Clinical Psychologist.

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