Imagine that you have a guarded new client with a history of substance use. You try everything to make them feel comfortable and they still show reluctance to engage in treatment. There may be several valid reasons for being closed off. This can lead to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, possibly causing cravings for relapse. The next session you bring your certified therapy dog. The dog is welcoming, non judgmental and accepting of your client and is happy when they arrive. What has just happened in the client’s body? Meeting the dog caused their cortisol level to decrease. Their bonding hormone, oxytocin, has increased. They used to get the release of dopamine from their drugs but now they are getting oxytocin from your dog instead. Their heart rate has stabilized, their blood pressure has reduced and their frontal lobe is back online (Odendaal and Meintjes, 2003). Now, they may feel less guarded and more comfortable in therapy.
Often times, clients are more willing to trust a canine therapist versus a human therapist. They are more open to touch and comfort when it comes from a dog. They feel the attunement from the therapy dog and get to experience what a healthy attachment feels like. They finally feel heard and seen. As a certified canine assisted therapist you notice when your client and dog have bonded. The therapeutic relationship has accelerated and you are ready to try many different interventions over the course of their treatment. You come up with a few interventions to try. One might be having the client teach the dog a trick to help them practice healthy communication and relationship skills. Another intervention to try might be discussing what they have in common with the therapy dog. This can be drawn out to increase empathy for the dog and themselves. Now that they have the experience of a healthy attachment with your dog, they can move on to practice attaching to healthy people in their lives. Now they are ready for canine assisted family therapy to start. Eventually the desire to use substances begins to diminish.
Practicing animal assisted therapy comes with many challenges and it’s no easy feat. I have been practicing canine assisted therapy since 2005. I’ve seen 65% of my clients obtain sobriety which is double the national average. I incorporate it in individual, couples and family therapy sessions. It is extremely important that you and your dog have proper training and that your dog enjoys the work. It is necessary that you know your dog’s calming signals and can advocate for them. In order to ethically practice canine assisted therapy you need to follow the recommended animal assisted therapy competencies written by the American Counseling Association. They suggest attending a canine assisted therapy training, having your dog pass the canine good citizen test and obtaining regular consultation among many other things.
If you want to learn more about canine assisted therapy go to my website:
Odendaal, JS and RA Meintjes. “Neurophysiological Correlates of Affiliative Behavior Between Humans and Dogs.” Veterinary Journal, May 2003, pp: 296-301.
Amanda Ingram, LCSW, CAC III, graduated from the University of Denver (DU) Graduate School of Social Work with an Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Certificate in 2007. She also trained Guide Dogs for the Blind for seven years. Ms. Ingram currently owns Pawsitive Therapeutic Interventions, LLC where she trains mental health providers in animal assisted therapy and also offers individual, couples and family therapy in the Stapleton community.