Come meet Max, our resident therapy dog – and learn the benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy!
At Live Better Psychology we are proud to have our very own resident therapy dog, Max. Max is a 7 month old Groodle, who has recently undergone specialist training at Lead the Way Canine and Equine Institute in Macclesfield, Victoria, so that he can assist our clients with his warmth, friendliness, and attunement to others’ feelings. You can visit www.leadthewayinstitute.com.au/home/ for more information.
The field of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) involves the study of how our relationship with animals can greatly enhance our social, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. For those of you who have attended a session at Live Better Psychology with Max and one of our psychologists or mental health social workers, you will know all too well how comforting and soothing an Animal Assisted Therapy dog can be for us. For those of you who have your own pets, you will know this from first-hand experience. But why is our relationship with animals so good for us, and how can these relationships enhance our wellbeing? Read on and find out!
What does Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) involve?
Broadly speaking, AAT involves interventions aimed at improving the individual’s relationship with animals, and in doing so, increase feelings of happiness, and alleviate symptoms of psychological distress. To date, research on animal-assisted therapy has involved a range of animals including cats, dogs, birds, horses, and fish. Key aspects of AAT may include the following:
· Developing a mutually affectionate relationship with animals
· Learning the behavioural and/or emotional patterns of animals, and tailoring one’s own behaviour in response to these (eg, giving Max a pat when he wags his tail)
· Gaining support from animals to mitigate the impacts of a medical condition (e.g, training dogs to become aware of the warning signs for the onset of a seizure)
Let’s look on the research on AAT.
Improved psychological wellbeing
In a comprehensive study of the known research on Animal-Assisted Therapy, researchers from the University of Utah revealed that Animal Assisted Therapy yielded significant reductions in psychological distress and associated negative outcomes in individuals with emotional disturbances, autism-spectrum difficulties, behavioural issues, and medical problems. These researchers also revealed that AAT was associated with reduced distress levels in children, adolescents, adults, and elderly adults; yielding positive outcomes across the lifespan. Key symptom reductions were particularly found in the areas of depression, anxiety, and stress. Notably, many of the research studies undertaken included dogs!
In a study published in the Journal of Gerontology, researchers revealed that animal-assisted therapy involving a range of pets within a residential retirement facility was associated with significantly lower scores on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. What’s more, the reductions in loneliness were most pronounced for individuals who had a previous history of emotional intimacy and closeness with pets. That is, reductions in loneliness were more likely for elderly individuals who had a previous history of positive experiences with pets. This suggests that for some individuals, a lifelong enjoyment of closeness with pets combats feelings of loneliness.
Enhanced emotion regulation
It has been suggested that having a pet within the therapy room presents an opportunity for individuals to develop a positive attachment relationship. Psychologically speaking, attachment refers to the general pattern in which we tend to form relationships with others. For some individuals with a history of chaotic interpersonal and family relationships, forming a strong bond with a pet can help in providing a new platform to develop relationships characterised by mutual affection, love, and care, and a capacity for self-soothing.
It may not seem like it, but developing a close relationship with animals may improve our social skills. Research published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research has revealed that exposure to a living dog (as opposed to a toy dog) within the therapy room; for children with pervasive developmental disorders; was associated with greater levels of focus within targeted social situations, enhanced positive mood, and a greater awareness of social environments in the presence of a dog. In a nutshell, having an animal present may help children with developmental difficulties to become more externally focused, and more likely to pay attention to social activities unfolding around them. Parents – thinking of a Christmas presents for the kids? Grab a puppy!
Rehabilitation for long-term mental illness
Interestingly, research has revealed positive outcomes of AAT for individuals with long-term mental illnesses. In a study of a small group of individuals with schizophrenia living in a social institute, it was revealed that nine months of weekly animal-assisted therapy, lasting for 50 minutes per session, was associated with significant improvements in engagement in healthy behaviours and domestic activities. In short, for individuals with chronic conditions, pets may increase motivation and engagement in purposeful daily activities.
Depression: the results are in
Does animal-assisted therapy help with depression? It seems that it does! In an enormous ‘study of studies’ carried out at Northern Arizona University, it was revealed that animal-assisted therapy (with various animals) was associated with mild reductions in depressive symptoms. Of course, these reductions were more pronounced for individuals who also underwent cognitive-behavioural therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, or other evidenced-based psychological therapies for depression. However these findings suggest that for individuals with depression, the presence of a positive relationship with pets may further reduce symptoms.
Would you like to learn about the benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy? Are you currently experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression? Chat to your GP and get a referral to Live Better Psychology today so that you can learn about evidence-based therapies for various psychological problems….and have the chance to meet Max!