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Animal Assisted Therapy for Addiction

Two of the dogs at The Raleigh House.
Petting an animal can reduce stress levels and cause a spike in the body’s natural feel-good chemicals.

There’s a scene in the 1997 film, Good Will Hunting, where Sean Maguire (played by the late Robin Williams) admits to Will (played by Matt Damon) during a therapy session that he also was a victim of child abuse and that what Will went through isn’t his fault. Sean Maguire says the words “it’s not your fault” over and over again until Will finally accepts the truth and breaks down crying. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s hard to forget this raw, emotional and vulnerable scene.

For some, this clarifying, “ah-ha!” moment is what therapy is all about. But for many others, opening up about traumatic experiences and being the most vulnerable you’ve ever been with a therapist you barely know can be uncomfortable and down-right terrifying.

This is where animal assisted therapy can help. Addiction treatment experts like those at The Raleigh House know it’s not easy to communicate and sort out your feelings in traditional therapy sessions. To supplement the work you do in individual and group therapy, addiction treatment centers oftentimes offer animal assisted therapy to help you work through your trauma and emotions at your own pace and on your own terms.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

According to the American Humane Society, animal assisted therapy is defined as “a goal-directed intervention in which an animal is incorporated as an integral part of the clinical health-care treatment process.”

During animal assisted therapy, a therapist or professional health care provider who has the skills and expertise with clinical applications of human-animal interactions will guide and oversee your interactions with an animal like a dog or horse.

How Does Animal Assisted Therapy Work in Addiction Treatment?

Animal assisted therapy can take different forms, depending on the animal you’re working with in addiction treatment and recovery. For example, animal assisted therapy may be more of an active exercise, like in equine therapy.

During equine therapy, you’re paired with a trained therapist and a horse and its handler. Together, you’ll work together to address treatment goals and objectives. The sessions with the horse are designed to help you learn about yourself and process what you’re thinking and feeling, which you’ll then discuss with your therapist later.

Other times, animal assisted therapy takes on more of a passive role in your treatment. This is often the case during your interactions with therapy dogs that are onsite. A dog might be present at a group therapy session just to make all parties feel more comfortable, or a dog may be available during one of your individual therapy sessions to help you feel more at ease when talking with your therapist.

The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy for Addiction

Animal assisted therapy was originally founded in the 1800s when Florence Nightingale observed that pets reduced anxiety symptoms of children and psychiatric patients. Since then, research has discovered that animal assisted therapy, does, in fact, have the ability to ease people’s stress, make them feel safe and help them relax.

In addiction treatment, specifically, animal assisted therapy can help you:

Feel Good About Yourself Again. Research studies like Odendall and Meintjes (2003) have shown that the simple act of petting a dog can reduce cortisol levels, plus release oxytocin, a hormone known to aid social bonding, and dopamine, a chemical in the brain that helps you feel good. These physiological responses mean that personal interactions with a dog can help improve your mood and make you feel better.

Manage Pain Better and Improve Immune Health. Since the act of petting a dog can help lower cortisol levels, animal assisted therapy can help in pain management – a benefit that is especially important for those who have turned to opioid abuse to deal with chronic pain. A 2004 study that examined how interactions with dogs affect immune health found evidence that animal assisted therapy can even benefit immune health. This is important for those in addiction treatment, since substance abuse oftentimes weakens the immune system.

Focus More During Therapy Sessions. When you’re interacting with a dog or horse, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the feel of their coats, the sounds of their breathing and every move that they make. This distraction, plus the physiological changes we’ve already discussed, help you forget your stress and improve your mood – aspects that allow you to think and feel more clearly during your therapy sessions.

Gain Insight into Your Thoughts and Feelings. Sometimes, you don’t feel like talking in traditional therapy sessions because you just don’t know where to start. If you don’t understand why you drank or abused drugs, you can’t communicate it to a therapist. Animal assisted therapy like equine therapy can help you get to the bottom of your thoughts and feelings first before going into an individual therapy session to talk to a therapist.

Improve Behaviors and Build Healthy Relationships. Horses have an uncanny ability of mirroring behaviors to provide insight into your feelings and actions you didn’t have before. This type of animal assisted therapy can help you manage your impulsivity, improve your destructive behaviors, rebuild your ability to trust others and learn to identify nonverbal cues from others that can help improve your relationships.

Animal Assisted Therapy at The Raleigh House

At The Raleigh House, we know and understand the trauma, pain and shame you’ve experienced that led to addiction or dual diagnosis disorders. These are difficult topics to open up about, which is why we offer animal assisted therapy to let you work through your experiences at your own pace.

During residential and outpatient treatment sessions, we have therapy dogs onsite who are more than happy to sit with you and help you relax. They can help ease any tension you’re feeling and relieve your symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Our residential addiction treatment program also includes equine therapy. If you’re just not ready to express what you’re feeling or if you still don’t understand why you turned to substance abuse, nonverbal interactions with our horses can help you get to the bottom of all of that without any risk of judgment or stigma.

Start Your Recovery from Addiction Today at The Raleigh House

Animals have an amazing way of connecting with us in ways we can’t always do with other people. They love us and accept us for who we are, and never judge or make you feel ashamed. This is why animal assisted therapy is incorporated into our addiction treatment and recovery program at The Raleigh House.

If you’re ready to get started, our admissions team is available to take your call. Fill out our form or contact us today.

Call Now: 720-891-4657

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