Animal-Assisted Therapy For Substance Abuse
When a person starts treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction, they will likely experience different types of therapy, like group or behavioral therapy, 12-step programs, and perhaps a medication regimen to assist in their recovery. Some may also be offered holistic therapies such as yoga, acupuncture, or art therapy. Others may have the opportunity to be involved in animal-assisted therapy with dogs, horses, and even dolphins.
Animal-assisted therapy is used for many issues, including helping people with mental disorders, inmates, people with illnesses like cerebral palsy and Alzheimer’s, and people struggling with substance abuse disorders. Interacting with animals reduces feelings of aggression, depression, and anxiety, and makes participants feel happier and calmer. Studies have shown that visiting with a dog can reduce pain and pain-related symptoms, and friendly dogs are often used in hospitals to comfort stressed patients. Now, many addiction rehabilitation centers are offering patients animal-assisted therapy using a broad spectrum of animals like cats, birds, rabbits, and horses.
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Equine refers to horses and members of the horse family, and equine therapy is the practice of utilizing horses in therapy. There are several types of equine-assisted therapy that have different practices and goals. Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) focuses on the emotional health of the client and their family, and usually involves family members. Equine-assisted learning (EAL) focuses on teaching clients how to manage their behavioral and emotional responses by understanding the horse’s responses. This helps clients work on communication and reflect on their own feelings and behavior because of the horse’s ability to read and mirror human emotions. The goal of EAL is to improve self and social awareness, self-management, and personal responsibility. Therapeutic riding focuses on self-confidence and physical health from learning to ride a horse, and Hippotherapy uses the movement of the horse to encourage patients to achieve physical therapy goals. Hippotherapy is typically for patients with disabilities like autism or multiple sclerosis.
Equine-assisted therapy is not solely about horseback riding, although that may be incorporated into it. Patients may have to care for the horse by grooming, feeding, and cleaning up after it. This gives recovering addicts a sense of responsibility in caring for another living creature. Horses are large, powerful, and sometimes intimidating animals and can take time to develop trust with the humans around them. Bonding with a horse can help the addict build trust and work on communicating with the animal. Because of horse’s often skittish reactions, having outbursts of emotions around the animal is not appropriate. This teaches patients impulse control, emotional management, and how to set boundaries.
A licensed therapist will work with those in recovery and the trained horses, and because the focus is on the horse, it gives the addict an opportunity to communicate with their therapist in an open and non-judgmental way. Equine-assisted therapy can also teach participants to execute control over their cravings. When someone craves a substance they are addicted to, their body language may appear distracted and angry. A horse will be able to pick up on this and will not respond positively to those emotions. This teaches the patient to learn ways to control their thoughts and cravings, and self soothe so that the horse can relax as well.
Some rehab facilities near the ocean offer the opportunity to swim with wild dolphins, while others may have dolphins in a tank for patients to interact with. Dolphins are intelligent and curious animals, and their willingness to interact with humans makes them a fairly popular choice when doing animal-assisted therapy. Participants may experience feelings of acceptance when a dolphin chooses to interact with them, which can remove feelings of shame and isolation that comes with addiction. Being relaxed in the water, especially in the open ocean, is essential so a therapist may help the patient with breathing exercises to help them gain control over their emotions. Dolphin-assisted therapy is often only offered in luxury rehab centers and in places like California and Hawaii. This can make it a very expensive option, but one that may be worth it to those in recovery.
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The most popular type of animal-assisted therapy is with man’s best friend: the dog. Friendly, intelligent, and easy to train are some of the traits that make dogs an obvious choice when choosing an animal to use in therapy for people with a substance use disorder. Canine-assisted therapy has been used for people with mental disabilities, illnesses, and to help reform incarcerated individuals. Petting and socializing with a dog can cause the brain to increase endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin, which are all responsible for making you feel happy. Being around a dog also helps people relax and open up and make them more likely to speak to the dog when they are hesitant to speak with a therapist. Opening up this communication can help patients share more effectively with their counselor. Studies have demonstrated that when dogs are brought into rehab clinics, the clinicians can gain more insight into their patients.
From studies done on the therapeutic effect of therapy dogs, it has been noted that dogs have caused inmates and patients in rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, and hospitals to have experienced social and health benefits.
Some facilities bring in shelter dogs, while others allow patients to bring their own dog into recovery with them. Caring for an animal helps with feelings of purpose and responsibility, and the moods of staff members are also lifted when dogs are around, making the experience more pleasant for everyone involved. Dogs can also spark enjoyable memories for patients about a childhood pet or the child-like desire to own a pet, and everyone can revel in the unconditional love that dogs offer. A dog does not judge and will gladly show affection to anyone despite their past addiction, and spending time with a dog gives patients something to look forward to, as well as helping reduce loneliness.
Common Questions About Rehab
The Results Of Animal-Assisted Therapy
There is no doubt that for most people, spending time with an animal will cheer them up. However, are the results of animal assisted therapy substantial? Multiple studies have shown the efficacy of this practice. In one study of 231 people divided into groups of people who worked with a therapy dog versus those who did not, the group that worked with the dogs had a far more positive opinion of the therapeutic alliance with their clinician. This leads to increased treatment success.
Find Animal-Assisted Therapy Options
There are now many rehabilitation facilities across the country that offer animal-assisted therapy. For help finding one, call a treatment provider who can discuss available rehab options.
Ashish Bhatt, MD, MRO
Doctor of Addiction Medicine
Learn about Dr. Ashish Bhatt
Dr. Bhatt has been Addiction Center's Medical Content Director for more than three years, providing his expertise to ensure quality and accuracy.
Doctor of Addiction Medicine
Expert in adult and child psychiatry
Over 20 years of professional experience