The Power of Pets in Therapy

The bond between humans, pets and their companions began around 40,000 years ago with the domestication of dogs. It has continued since then. You may already be aware of the benefits of pet companionship because you either had one as a child, have one as an aging adult, or know someone who has one.

 

They can bring their pet along with them. These benefits could include:

Did you know that therapy consulting can also include pets?

Pets are good for your physical health

There’s an entire branch of therapy devoted to working with animals called animal-assisted therapy. Equestrian-assisted psychotherapy (also known as horse therapy or equestrian therapy) is a popular one. The therapy’s ability to treat issues like grief, addiction, or trauma is well documented. It helps people learn to recognize and re-cover emotions, regulate emotions, communicate better, and how to communicate with horses. Riders learn to trust their horses and regain their trust.

That said, equine-assisted therapy is wonderful if you have access to it, but what if you don’t? What if you can’t afford it or you live in a big city without any equestrian centers? Even if you don’t want to become a full-time pet owner, you can still reap the benefits of working with animals. Whether you interact with a cat or dog in your therapist’s office, at an animal shelter, or via a cat café, animals can do the following:

  • Lower your blood pressure and improve your cardiovascular health
  • Slow down your breathing
  • Release the neurotransmitter Dopamine, also known as the pleasure hormone, and other feel good hormones like serotonin and prolactin.
  • Reduce overall pain
  • Comfortable
  • More

Pets can provide emotional and mental benefits

These are the benefits that physical activity brings. There are also mental benefits such as lowering anxiety and reducing depression. However, something people don’t often think about is interacting with animals teaches relational skills. For example, animals offer endless opportunities for boundary setting. Training pets requires saying “no” to things like jumping on certain furniture or eating items they shouldn’t. Pets also teach You It is important to know your boundaries. You may want to pet the cat, but they won’t let you touch them. With pets, you learn to honor another being’s “no” because otherwise you may get scratched or bitten.

Working with animals can lead to feelings of empathy and attunement. You identify with their feelings. The closer you are able to bond with an animal, then the more you can engage them. The deeper the bond, the  more you work to understand what they’re feeling or needing (even though you may not know for sure).

Pets allow you to give and receive

Pets can also be a way to show and receive affection and care. When you’re upset, a dog may nudge your leg or put their head on your lap. Animals show they care about you and that can be incredibly healing if you’re a person who hasn’t or doesn’t experience that on a regular basis.

A therapy animal can help you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and your projections by being present in a session. In Robert Johnson’s Owning Your ShadowHe discusses how pet owners can project emotions onto their pets. It’s a way to make some sort of sense of your feelings before you may be able to feel them yourself. An example: Someone might say that an animal is scared or lonely. There may be some truth to that,  but, in therapy, the person talking about the animal’s supposed loneliness or fear is more of the focus of the session.

The power of pets is tangible and I hope you’re able to interact with some furry friends. Why not give it a try, if you’re able?

Journal prompts

  • What have your experiences and relationships with animals taught you?
  • Imagine a therapy session with an animal companion.
  • What was it like to have your animal(s), more present in the last few decades since Zoom therapy became more common?

 

Reading suggestions:

Robert Johnson. Owning Your Shadow. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994

 

Refer to

Briggs, Helen. “How did dogs become our best friends? New evidence.” BBC News. July 19, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-40638584

Unknown. “Animal-Assisted Therapy Research.” UCLA Health. https://www.uclahealth.org/pac/animal-assisted-therapy. Accessed June 29, 2022.

 






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