Incorporating animal-assisted therapy in addiction treatment programs can be helpful to patients for several reasons. Working with animals can help relieve some of the anxiety patients may be experiencing about getting sober while providing a holistic healing outlet that can help treat trauma, grief, loss, and several mental health conditions. Animals tend to offer a sort of unconditional love and acceptance that can help patients relax and heal in a safe environment.

Animal-assisted therapies are most often used in substance abuse treatment programs to help people struggling with chronic stress or trauma. This type of therapy offers a nonverbal approach that allows patients to work through trauma or other issues they would otherwise feel uncomfortable talking about in a traditional mental health counseling setting. On the other hand, it can also help people struggling with chronic stress by acting as a stress and anxiety-relieving mechanism.

What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal Assisted Therapy

Animal-assisted therapies are techniques that involve using animals for the treatment of acute and chronic diseases. Dating back to 10,000 BC, humans have kept animals like dogs and cats as pets. The simple and enjoyable acts of playing or petting animals is known to lower levels of cortisol in the brain, the chemical that produces stress. Doing so simultaneously increases the production of serotonin, helping make people less stressed.[1]

There are two different types of therapies that involve animals:

  1. Animal-assisted therapy – a therapy technique where social workers, counselors, or therapists use animals in their treatment plans. They most often use dogs in canine-assisted therapy or horses for equine-assisted therapy.
  2. Pet therapy – when volunteers take their trained pets to different treatment settings, such as hospitals, schools, or treatment facilities to help cheer up patients.

Pet therapy can benefit virtually anyone and can be done in any setting Animal-assisted therapy, on the other hand, is facilitated by therapists who have clinical experience in the field. This type of therapy can be used to treat a variety of different mental health conditions as well as people struggling with addiction and other chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s or cerebral palsy.

Interacting with compassionate animals like dogs and horses is a great way to reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger while promoting relaxation and happiness. As such, many addiction treatment centers incorporate animal-assisted therapy into their rehab programs.

Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy in Addiction Treatment

While animal-assisted therapy isn’t meant to be a sole treatment option for substance use disorder, studies have found that it is a highly effective supplemental therapy when combined with traditional treatment techniques.[2] Different animals offer unique benefits. The most common types of animal-assisted therapies used in drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs are dogs, horses, and dolphins. Let’s take a look at how each technique works and how it can benefit addiction recovery.

Canine-Assisted Therapy

Canine-assisted therapy is a popular form of animal-assisted therapy because dogs are fairly low-cost, friendly, smart, loyal, and easy to train. As such, dogs have been used in therapy to help people struggling with addiction, mental disabilities, chronic illness, and even in the reformation of incarcerated people.

Spending time petting and interacting with dogs releases feel-good endorphins like oxytocin and serotonin in the brain. This helps improve mood and promote relaxation. When people feel calm and secure, particularly while petting a dog, they may be more likely to open up and talk about difficult issues with their therapist. As a result, dogs can help facilitate open communication between a patient and a therapist, allowing clinicians to gain better insight into their patient’s needs and requirements.

Dog therapy not only helps people express themselves more openly. It can also help promote empathy, improve problem-solving skills and communication skills, and improve one’s attitude and motivation levels.

Equine-Assisted Therapy

Equine is a word referring to horses and other members of the horse family. There are several subsets of equine therapy. These include:

  • Equine-assisted learning (EAL) – a therapy technique using horses to help clients learn to manage their behavioral and emotional responses through nonverbal communication with the horse. Horses can read and mirror human emotions, so they can help patients connect to and understand their own feelings. EAL can help improve self-awareness, emotional management, and confidence.
  • Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) – a technique that focuses on the emotional health of the client and their family. This may include family members to help make the patient aware of how they interact with others and improve their communication skills.
  • Therapeutic riding – learning to ride a horse can help build confidence and promote physical health among people in recovery.

Equine therapy for substance abuse treatment involves more than petting a horse or riding a horse. It also involves grooming, feeding, cleaning stalls, and more. These responsibilities help give individuals a sense of purpose and motivation while they are in treatment. Furthermore, being that patients are taking care of such large, powerful animals, patients learn to build trust and communicate calmly and effectively.

Equine therapy can help patients improve their emotional regulation skills, impulse control, and more.[3] Patients may find they have an easier time dealing with cravings or setting boundaries after participating in equine therapy. Overall, equine therapy can help improve relationships, grow trust, and reinforce healthy communication skills in recovery.

Dolphin-Assisted Therapy

People who attend a rehab facility near the ocean may have access to an additional type of animal-assisted therapy during addiction treatment – dolphin-assisted therapy. Although they are wild animals, dolphins are intelligent, curious, and compassionate animals that love interacting with humans. When a dolphin chooses to interact with a person, it can help reduce that person’s feelings of shame, isolation, and even fear. This type of therapy can get expensive and is usually only offered at luxury addiction treatment centers, however, the benefits may be worth it for some individuals.

Find an Animal-Assisted Addiction Treatment Program Near You

Animal-assisted therapy is not, by any means, a requirement for people who want to get sober. That being said, there are many ways you can benefit from animal-assisted therapy, especially if you have a hard time discussing your emotions verbally or if you know you connect well with animals in a therapeutic setting.

Whatever your needs may be, our dedicated treatment professionals are only a phone call away to help you find the right addiction treatment program for your unique needs. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, contact us today.