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April 4, 2023

Animal Assisted Therapy: What, Who, and Why

by Diana Creech, LCSW-A

If you’ve ever noticed that animals make you feel happy or calm, you’re not alone. Because of that reason and science, animals are effective in a variety of different ways and settings to assist in therapy.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a modality of therapy where an animal is introduced in mental health care to help the psychotherapy process. Many individuals seeking mental health help find that AAT can give them an easier route into seeking help. Almost any animal can participate within AAT, some of the most common are dogs, horses, birds, fish and small rodents such as hamsters, guinea pigs, etc.  As long as the animal being used in the psychotherapy process has been trained or approved by the person administering the AAT they are able to be used. AAT can take places in therapy offices, residential treatment centers, hospitals, nature immersion, animal training sessions, and camp-like environments to name a few. AAT can be used in group or individual settings.

The History of Animal Assisted Therapy

AAT was first introduced into clinical psychology in 1962 by child psychologist, Boris Levinson. Levinson discovered that through the help of a dog, he was able to help break barriers with a child patient of his when his own dog, Jingles, attended therapy sessions. He began to bring Jingles to sessions with other children and had remarkable findings which led him to publish them. Due to a rise in popularity after Levinson, many individuals working in mental health began to see the positive impact AAT can have on people who have also experienced trauma. After the Columbine shootings of Colorado in 1999, Cindy Ehlers brought her husky, Bear, to meet with students and saw the impact it made on their healing process. Cindy Ehlers began a nonprofit with Crisis Response Canines that have helped all over the United States from Columbine, to 9/11, to Hurricane Katrina and the many unfortunate mass shootings that have happened since Columbine. Animals who participate in AAT must go through health screenings, temperament training, and skills training. Since 1962 AAT has flourished in many different organizations and forms of clinical use.

How do humans benefit from and the importance of Animal Assisted Therapy

Using an animal, therapists can use one treatment tool to target a goal or multiple goals with a patient. There are many psychological and physiological benefits to AAT. People who interact with animals in AAT can gain benefits such as:

  • Sense of empowerment
  • Decreased Stress levels
  • Rise in beta-endorphins
  • Decreased hostility towards others
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Decreased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Increased patience and trust
  • Reduce in anger and aggression
  • Reduce in anxiety and depression

People of all ages can benefit from AAT, from young children to the elderly. Studies have shown that elderly and aging individuals benefit positively from AAT by gaining a sense of independence and being able to care for an animal, after many have not been able to for years. As many have not had pets for a while, being around them again can bring back fond and happy memories throughout their life. This can also help reduce loneliness for those individuals. Young children can benefit from AAT through gaining a sense of confidence and security. They are also able to gain skills such as empathy, patience, acceptance, responsibility and respect. In some children AAT can also help to nurture verbal and nonverbal skills and paired with other skills can help all children maintain mutually respectful and protected bonds with others throughout their lives.

Animal Assisted Therapy has changed the lives of many patients dealing with mental health disorders and trauma. AAT can help patients with depression, anxiety, autism, dementia and schizophrenia to name a few. The positive change in patients using AAT is evident based on improved behavior through reducing and alleviating symptoms. The changes caused by AAT mainly affect patients’ psychological, emotional and cognitive wellbeing. As AAT is continuously researched and used, it shows just how effective it can be as a treatment modality and how important it can be for the future of mental health.


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