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The Benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy

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My therapy dog Gizmo has shown me how helpful animal assisted therapy can be. Gizmo will greet his visitors enthusiastically and instantly becomes friends, especially with children, though he also tends to warm the hearts of many adult clients. It’s a fact that owning a dog can change an individual’s life by giving them a reason to stay active while reducing stress and improving their general health. Interacting with dogs can have a direct influence on health, from lowering blood pressure and increasing levels of serotonin to help feeling emotionally better. Therefore, it is no surprise that dogs in clinical settings can be beneficial for a client’s well-being and can have a positive influence on his or her therapeutic progress. Therapy dogs

So what exactly is a therapy dog?Well, a therapy dog is a dog that unlike service dogs, provides people with therapeutic contact, usually in a clinical setting, to improve their physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning. Typically, therapy dogs’ training and certification enables them to work in public places. Therapy dogs are usually not assistance or service dogs, but can be one or both with some organization. The systematic use of therapy dogs is attributed to Elaine Smith, who noticed that patients responded positively to his Golden Retriever, after which she founded Therapy Dogs International (TDI) in 1976 in order to train dogs to visit institutions such as hospitals.  

Being around therapy dogs has been shown to have beneficial effects on people’s mental and physical health. For children as well as adults who struggle with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, being able to spend time with a dog or other animal can help improve their quality of life. Research has shown that just 15 minutes of bonding with an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowering levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol and increasing production of the feel-good hormone serotonin.

Some therapy dogs for children with autism are even trained to recognize and interrupt self-harming behaviours or can help to de-escalate an emotional meltdown. To illustrate, the dog might respond to signs of agitation or anxiety by gently laying on his or her lap or leaning against the child. Animals in particular can be soothing for those with difficulty using language. They communicate with children and adults on a non-verbal level, and that connection helps to improve their feelings of self-worth, confidence and self-esteem.

The use of therapy dogs in psychology clinics
Animal assisted therapy is one form of animal based therapy that is commonly used within psychology clinics. AAT is a guided interaction by a trained professional between a client and an animal of which the purpose is to help someone cope with a health problem. Academic research supports the following potential benefits of therapy dogs in psychotherapy: 

  • A therapy dog facilitates rapport between clients and the psychologist. 
  • The dog’s non-judgmental nature may help clients feel more comfortable trusting the psychologist. This can aid clients to disclose more during therapy sessions as they perceive it as a safe environment. 
  • A therapy dog can act as a transitional object for clients. This allows clients to convey feelings through the animal rather than addressing the psychologist directly.
  • Therapy dogs can lower anxiety and therefore motivate clients to fully engage in therapy sessions. 
  • The interaction with a therapy dog might encourage clients to get in touch with their feelings. 
  • The dog’s presence may reduce perceived physical as well as mental pain.
  • They provide unconditional acceptance, which can reduce stress and anxiety for the client and the client’s family or friends. 

(Braun, Stangler, Narveson, & Pettingell, 2009; Havey, Vlasses, Vlasses, Ludwig-Beymer, Hackbarth, 2014)

I hope you’ve found this blog useful. If you have any further question or would like to experience a therapy dog assisted session, please call Drop of Life and book in an appointment with Wendy. 

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