eNewsletter - March 2017
Behavioral Health Partners
Patients and their Pets: Exploring the animal connection in therapy
By: Megan Walsh, LCPC
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 clients 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.
While having a therapy dog can be a tremendous advantage in the therapeutic relationship, not all behavioral health professionals have the ability to have animals in their practice. However, even without a therapy animal, clinicians can utilize the human-animal bond that a client has with their pet as a therapeutic tool.
That is, animals can teach us important lessons about ourselves and how to live. The relationship a client has with apet can be utilized as a therapeutic tool in their recovery. There are a few things I like to point out and discuss with all my clients who have pets (and even those that don’t).
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.
For homework, a good exercise for clients is to go home and cuddle/interact with their 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 clients notice about their own breathing? Does it slow down? Does the pet enjoying themselves? How can you tell?
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.
Often times, if a client was upset or having a bad day, I would ask, how did your pet react? Usually the answer leads to insightful conversation.
Some other questions to ask include: 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?
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.
I challenge clients to 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.
- Olmert, M. D. (2010). Made for each other: the biology of the human-animal bond. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Megan Walsh, LCPC
Megan is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. She has worked at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health for four years in a variety of roles including a leadership role in the Assessment and Referral Center. Currently, Megan works in the Marketing Department as a liaison where she is responsible for new business development initiatives. Megan has 10+ years’ experience in the behavioral health field including community counseling and work at a domestic violence shelter. Megan has been a volunteer with the Animal Assisted Therapy program at Linden Oaks in the past with her black lab mix, Bailey and is currently looking for a new canine companion to be her partner.