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A Dog in Therapy?! The Benefits of Using a Therapy Dog in Session

Updated: Jan 8, 2019


Me and My Dog Tella! (Short for Nutella)

Have you ever found yourself snuggling up or petting a dog and noticed that you were calm and relaxed?


The majority of people enjoy playing and spending time with their family pet. Why?—because dogs help us clear our minds and focus on something outside of ourselves.


Due to these benefits, more therapists are using dogs in therapy sessions!


Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a model of therapy in which dogs are involved in mental health treatment.


AAT occurs when a therapist uses an animal, usually a dog, to help the client reach their goals in therapy [1]. This involves the therapist having his or her own therapy dog present during sessions.


This article will discuss why using a dog in therapy and mental health treatment is beneficial for you as a client and how a therapist can use a dog in session.



A DOG in Therapy?!


A common question asked by clients is: Why would I want a dog in my therapy session?

Dogs provide a non-judgmental, gentle presence that a human cannot always offer.


Therapy dogs have proven to be a useful addition to treatment because the dog can create a calming presence and help clients in reaching their goals.


Children who experienced sexual abuse reported feeling more comfortable and safe during session [2].


Teens who also had a therapy dog were more relaxed and calm during session [3].


Children and teens that are more relaxed during session are able to discuss their struggles and problems more quickly. This means that children can reach their goals more quickly.


College students had fewer symptoms of anxiety and loneliness while working with a dog in therapy [4].


When a client is able to lower their anxiety in session, they can usually lower their anxiety outside of session as well!


Finally, adults suffering from depression had much lower levels of loneliness and other depressive symptoms after working with a therapy dog [5].


Regardless of the client’s age, most individuals who work with a dog in therapy have lower symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who did not work with a therapy dog!



What is it Like to See a Dog in Therapy?


So what would it be like to go to therapy and have a therapy dog present?


Animal-assisted therapy is a type of dog-assisted therapy only used by professionals (therapists).


Usually, the dogs used in AAT are the therapist’s dog(s). The therapist and the dog go through therapy dog training together.


This training includes training the dog's behavior as well as educating the therapist on how to use the dog in the therapy room.


On the first visit, the therapist will introduce you to the dog and ensure you are comfortable with the dog prior to starting therapy.


You will have time to get to know the dog and for the dog to get to know you. The therapist will continue to check in with you to make sure you are comfortable with the presence of a dog in therapy.


When the therapist and you decide you are ready, they will instruct you to interact with the dog. This interaction will always be connected to your therapy goals.



Interactions With the Dog in Therapy Sessions


As a client, your interactions with the dog will go beyond just a simple meet and greet. Using the dog as meet and greet are classified as Animal Assisted Activities, not Animal Assisted Therapy.


AAT dogs are commonly trained and certified to work in a therapeutic setting [6]. As stated above, you will first have time to get to know the dog.


This time will include you petting the dog and engaging with the dog, in whatever way you feel is comfortable.


Once you are comfortable with the dog, you will begin interacting with the dog in therapeutic ways. The therapist will give you directions on how to interact with the dog.


This therapeutic interaction may include you giving the dog a command (sit, stay, lay down, etc.). You may also interact with the dog by walking them or guiding them through obstacles.


The therapist may comment on your interactions with the dog and relate this back to your everyday life. These interactions will bring you comfort as well as helping you reach your goals.


Another common way a to use a dog in therapy is bringing the dog into the conversation. This can look very different depending on the therapist.


One way this is used is by asking the client to predict what the dog's opinion is on a particular subject.


The dog can also be used in conversation by talking to the dog. Although this may seem strange, talking to a nonjudgmental dog allows you to open up in a different way rather than just talking to the therapist.


Many clients can also greatly benefit from just sitting, petting, and enjoying the dog. Petting and caring for another creature can greatly reduce the level of stress and anxiety you may experience.


A therapist may have you take a few moments and focus on the dog, which will draw you “out from your head.” This mindfulness activity allows you to focus on how the dog’s fur feels in between your fingers, you can listen to their breaths, and you can watch their belly rise and fall.



Summing Up Using a Dog in Therapy


If you have ever become upset around a dog, you may have noticed that they attempt to come and comfort you.


Dogs have a natural tendency to come close to a person who is scared, sad, or anxious. They have the ability to feel your senses and work to calm your emotions [7].


Due to the benefits of having a dog in therapy, I highly recommend you consider seeing a therapist with a well-trained therapy dog.


About the Author

Valerie Handley, M.S., LMFTA, is a Marriage and Family Therapist. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy at Texas Tech University. Currently, she is a visiting lecturer in the Couple and Family Therapy program at The University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her clinical experiences include working with couples, families, and individuals with various presenting concerns including anxiety and depression. She has specifically worked with the LGBTQIA population. She currently offers virtual therapy to residents of Texas. Her research interests include: SFBT and Animal-Assisted Therapy. She has received training in both SFBT and microanalysis. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on SFBT and Animal-Assisted Therapy. Valerie is a previous recipient of the SFBTA Research Award in 2017.

References


[1] Lange, A. M., Cox, J. A., Bernert, D. J., & Jenkins, C. D. (2007). Is Counseling Going to the Dogs? An Exploratory Study Related to the Inclusion of an Animal in Group Counseling with Adolescents. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 2(2), 17– 31. https://doi.org/10.1300/J456v02n02_03


[2] Reichert, E. (1998). Individual Counseling for Sexually Abused Children: A Role for Animals and Storytelling. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 15, 177-185.


[3] Peacock, C. (1984). The Role of the Therapist’s pet in Initial Psychotherapy Sessions with Adolescents: An exploratory study. (Doctoral Dissertation, Boston College, 1990). Dissertation Abstracts International, 46(8-1), 2239.


[4] Stewart, L. A., Dispenza, F., Parker, L., Chang, C. Y., & Cunnien, T. (2014). A Pilot Study Assessing the Effectiveness of an Animal-Assisted Outreach Program. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 9(3), 332–345. https://doi.org/10.1080/15401383.2014.892862


[5] Souter, M. A., & Miller, M. D. (2007). Do Animal-Assisted Activities Effectively Treat Depression? A Meta-Analysis. Anthrozoös, 20(2), 167–180. https://doi.org/10.2752/175303707X207954


[6] Delta Society (1996). Standards of practice for animal assisted activities and therapy (no. AAT251). Renton, WA.


[7] Beck, A., & Katcher, A. (1996) Between pets and people. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University.

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