Patients and their pets: exploring the animal connection in therapy

March 09, 2017 | by Megan Walsh, LCPC
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

Dogs have long played a role in humans’ lives. What started as a mutually beneficial arrangement for the survival of both species has grown so that dogs are now our companions in all aspects of life. Why is the bond between dogs and humans so strong?

In the book, Made for Each Other, Meg Daley Olmert explains the science behind the human-animal emotional bond. Her research explores a range of fields from evolutionary biology and neuroscience to psychology and anthropology. 

She offers that a new and exceptional relationship between animals and humans emerged when wolves stopped looking at humans as food and realized they could offer protections, and humans began working together with wolves to hunt. 

The key to this human-animal union is the same powerful neurochemical that bonds mother and child — oxytocin. Oxytocin is increased in humans by the mere presence and the act of petting a dog/pet, and its presence is why the human-animal bond is so strong. It’s why we miss and mourn our animals the same as we do our loved ones. 

I witnessed this bond firsthand when my dog, Bailey, a black lab mix, became a part of the animal assisted program at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health, and I began incorporating her into patient treatment. During both individual outpatient therapy sessions and inpatient and outpatient group therapy treatment, Bailey helped to put patients at ease and make my work as a counselor easier. 

Bailey’s big brown eyes offered the perfect icebreaker to establish a relationship with a patient. I noticed that patients had an easier time talking about stressful experiences while petting her, and they were always eager to come back to treatment, knowing they could see her again.

How can the human-animal bond you have with your own pet become a useful therapeutic tool?

Animals can teach us important lessons about ourselves and how to live, by encouraging:

Mindfulness

Dogs live in the moment. They can teach us to slow down and enjoy what’s happening. When a dog is chewing on a bone, it’s the best bone in the world; there is nothing else that dog wants. Until it’s meal time. And then that meal is the best thing ever and so on. Dogs don’t think about the presentation they have tomorrow or why a friend didn’t respond to a text.

A good exercise is to go home and cuddle/interact with your animal and really focus on the experience. How does the animal react to different types of touch? What does their fur/feet/ears/skin feel like? What do you notice about your own breathing? Does it slow down? Does the pet enjoy themselves? How can you tell?

Unconditional love

Pets don’t judge us because we’re depressed or anxious. Pets love us regardless of the mistakes we’ve made and are quick to offer forgiveness.

Think about how your pet reacts when you are upset or having a bad day. What would it be like if a friend/partner/family member listened and responded like your pet? How does it feel when your pet cuddles up to you? Is there anyone in your life who makes your feel like that? What would it be like if they did?

Self-love/self-acceptance

YouTube is full of videos of three-legged dogs running around with four-legged dogs or cats using a wheelchair for their back paws to zoom around. Pets don’t see themselves as less than and they don’t define themselves by what they lack. Pets don’t think about how this collar makes them look fat or that the other animals are going to laugh at them for not having the new designer leash.

Think about what it would feel like to not worry about what other people think. Why does someone else’s opinion mean more than your own? What do you think your pet thinks about you? What would your pet advise you to do?

It’s truly amazing the lessons humans can learn from animals. Pets rejoice in life’s simple pleasures. They don’t hold grudges, and they don’t get bogged down by negative self-talk. And they love us without reservation.

I know that my work with Bailey has personally made me more mindful, loving and gentler with myself. Wag more, bark less.

Learn more about animal-assisted therapy.

Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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