The Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Mental Health

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Quote the Raven: Megan Kidd
Forensic Psychology with a minor in Neuroscience and Mental Health

Megan Kidd

In a conversation with Allie Davidson, the owner of Carleton therapy dog Murphy, she states: “very often during Murphy’s therapy sessions on campus, I hear comments from students like, “this made my day!” or “I really needed this.” I think visiting with a therapy dog helps students take a moment for themselves, to stop thinking about their stresses, and to just enjoy the calming, happy presence of the dog. During Murphy’s therapy visits, many of the students talk about their own dogs back at home. I get to see lots of adorable photos! Many students are experiencing being away from their family homes and their beloved furry friends for the first time. I think being able to spend time with the therapy dogs helps to ease some of the heartaches and help students feel more at home on campus.”

Animal-assisted therapy, or AAT, goes by many names, such as pet therapy, pet psychotherapy, pet-facilitated therapy, pet-facilitated psychotherapy, pet-mediated therapy, pet-oriented therapy, emotional support dog, equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), equine-assisted learning (EAL) or equine-assisted personal development (EAPD). The list truly is endless. In essence, animal-assisted therapy is defined as a secondary type of therapy that uses animals in treatment. According to Wikipedia, “animal-assisted therapy can be classified by the type of animal, the targeted population, and how the animal is incorporated into the therapeutic plan. The most commonly used types of animal-assisted therapy are canine-assisted therapy and equine-assisted therapy.”

Animal-assisted therapy falls under the domain of animal-assisted interventions (AAI), which is “a goal-directed intervention… designed to promote improvement in physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functioning of the person(s) involved and in which a specially trained animal-handler team is an integral part” according to Animal Assisted Intervention International. Along with AAT, there are animal-assisted activities which “can be spontaneous, timing is as long or short as determined by participants, and there are no treatment goals associated.” As many of you might know, Blue was the first Carleton therapy dog and he “provided a form of canine therapy for students within the scope of retention and building positive mental health. The work of all Carleton therapy dogs is classified as an animal-assisted activity.”

Zak the therapy dog holding a stuffed animal in his mouthIn a conversation with Adelle Forth, associate professor of psychology at Carleton, she details a story where “one time a student showed up with a plateful of pancakes. Zak was beside himself thinking that the pancakes were for him! All he could do was sit and stare at the pancakes and drool. Since therapy dogs are not allowed to eat on the job, he did not get any pancakes. Zak likes to learn new tricks (he can play basketball, pretend he is sad, wave goodbye, bow, etc.). At one session, a student asked if he could howl. I said I would teach him, and he now howls if you howl. All fine except one time he was in the library (during the final exam period), and I told a large group of students about this new trick. Before I knew it about 10 students started to howl and Zak howled in response. I quickly put an end to the howling, and we all went outside to practice our howling!”

The effect of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is far and wide. Studies have shown physiological benefits from AAT, stating “six neurotransmitters that influence mood have been documented to release after a 15 minute or more interaction with animals.” There have been studies showing the impact of mirror neuron activity on humans and dogs, as well as horses. In particular, equine-assisted therapy is shown to benefit people on the autism spectrum. AAT has been used in medicine such as in nursing homes, for people in prisons, for people suffering from mental health issues (such as service dogs for Wounded Warriors with PTSD), service dogs for sexual assault survivors and children with ADHD.

Zak the therapy dogIn particular, I want to focus on the benefits of animal-assisted therapy on people struggling with substance use. The researcher most known for the intersectional relationship between animal-assisted therapy and substance use is Dr. Colleen Dell, professor and research chair of One Health & Wellness at the University of Saskatchewan. She has published countless articles on substance use and animal-assisted intervention, and she has attended a Carleton event to discuss this. I want to share the stories of people who have had or witnessed the human-animal connection.

In a conversation with Sue McGoldrick, an equine assisted personal development coach at Epona Glen Equine Assisted Learning about the impact of horses on people, she said “horses make exceptional therapeutic animals due to their status as a prey animal. They have keen senses and are very perceptive to facial expressions, body language, odours, mood, and vital signs. There is interesting science behind why the horse/human bond feels a little like magic. Due to the size of horses’ hearts, they actually emit quite a large electromagnetic field. It is not uncommon for horse and human heart rates to sync when close and calm. Further, besides the other most popular therapy animal, dogs, horses do not subscribe to the unconditional love motto of man’s best friend. Anyone who knows horses knows that our anger, frustration, sadness, or happiness can result in some pretty clear feedback from our equine partners.”

In her experience, she has found the benefits of horse-human connections in EAL include “generally non-verbal children with autism beginning to speak to and in the presence of horses, teens in conflict with parents being more positive and engaging, that there is reduced bullying behaviours in kids and confidence-building in victims of bullying, that adults with anxiety disorders feel calmer and return to previous social/work activities, that there is recognition in adults of maladaptive coping mechanisms and interpersonal relations, there is boundary building and it reduces the severity of symptoms of PTSD, as well as changes in leadership styles and communications skills of people.” She recounted an experience of this human-horse connection: “in a demonstration of EAL given at Edmonton Garrison Saddle Club, they allowed the horse to choose the person rather than the norm (which is the human choosing the horse). Five volunteers were lined up and the horses were led slowly behind the line on a loose lead. The horses were given the choice to stop and explore each person if they wished. One particular horse, [who] had experienced trauma in his own life, walked past a few of the people and stopped at a specific person, sniffed, then curved his head over the individual’s shoulder and essentially hugged the individual. The individual broke down crying; the horse knew this person needed comfort in that moment due to an internal issue they were feeling.”

If you want to learn more about how therapy dogs have been implemented locally or throughout universities, Therapeutic Paws of Canada has a wonderful article about the impact therapy dogs have had on the Ottawa Mental Health Court. The University of Saskatchewan has looked at the impact of therapy dogs on university studies during the pandemic. If you want to read more stories about the impact of the animal-human connection, you can read this collection of service animal stories or this article on the healing properties of pet therapy.

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