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Can Animal-Assisted Therapy Help Treat Substance Abuse?

Humans and animals have an extensive history together. Domestic animals remain a source of companionship for millions of people in the United States, and they may also be useful in substance abuse treatment and recovery programs.

Animal-Assisted Therapy for Substance Abuse Issues

The application of animal-assisted therapy will vary depending on the facility, the therapist, the client, and the goals of the intervention.

Animal-assisted therapy programs are often tailored to suit the particular client who is being addressed.  For instance, individuals in inpatient substance abuse treatment programs who are able to get involved in equine-assisted therapy will spend a specific amount of time with a horse each day under the supervision of a therapist. Those in outpatient treatment sessions may have regularly scheduled visits with the horse, but these may not occur daily. These individuals continue working with their physicians, addiction counselors, therapists, and support groups just like they would in traditional treatment.

There are a number of options in the delivery of animal-assisted therapy. For instance, a therapy dog may just be present during the session, or the client may be required to do care for the dog and walk it regularly. In equine-assisted therapy where horses are used, a person can expect the following:

  • The client will develop a relationship with the horse.
  • The client will be required to attend to the horse’s basic needs, including feeding, exercising, and grooming the horse. In some instances, it may even include saddling and riding the horse; however, this is not common.
  • The goal is to develop a relationship between the horse and the client, to teach clients that they cannot control every aspect of their lives. In equine-assisted therapy, horses have little tolerance for people who try to force them to do things. They are far bigger and stronger than humans, so clients have to learn to negotiate this situation with the horse. Clients have to learn to give up control.
  • Clients in equine-assisted therapy learn how to address boundaries in behavior. Caring for horses helps teach them how to care for themselves.

Of course, all forms of animal-assisted therapy offer benefits from the reciprocal affection that the animals can provide to caring individuals. By interacting in a relationship with an animal, individuals learn more about themselves, how to interact positively with others, and how to exchange mutual affection.

Animal-assisted therapy can assist individuals who have issues with self-esteem. Individuals working with animals, and engaging in a mutually beneficial and caring relationship that they may not have had in their personal lives, find they can develop self-esteem and a sense of importance as they interact with the animal.

For certain types of individuals with substance use disorders, it is much easier to develop such a relationship with an animal than with people. Relationships with the animals can model behaviors needed to relate to people. Moreover, engaging in care for the animal helps individuals with substance use disorders develop a sense of purpose that can be translated and modeled into other areas of their lives.

These aspects of animal-assisted therapies make them especially attractive for individuals with substance use disorders, and they can be used to assist individuals at any age or from any background.

Is This Therapy Beneficial?

animal assisted therapy benefitsIn general, animal-assisted therapy can be useful in the treatment of substance use disorders. Animals offer a means for people to connect with one another and to connect with the animal. As discussed above, there is research that indicates that the therapeutic alliance in counseling for substance use disorders may be strengthened by the use of a therapy dog. The dog typically needs training to interact properly with individuals in the therapeutic environment, and individuals in therapy need to stick to the ground rules regarding the appropriateness of certain behaviors during the interaction.

One issue that is important to understand is that it can be relatively easy for the animal to become a distraction to the therapeutic process in the treatment of substance use disorders.Individuals may want to spend time interacting with the animal as opposed to working on their own issues. This is why animal-assisted therapy is always supervised by a therapist.

Of course, not everyone has an affinity for animals, and certain clients in substance use disorder treatment will not be appropriate for this supplementary intervention. It is not a panacea, nor is it a standalone treatment. It is a supplementary intervention technique that can facilitate substance use disorder treatment in some instances.

There are a number of individuals in substance use disorder treatment who would not fare well when being forced to interact with animals that can potentially injure them. In addition, it would be counterproductive to force an individual who is not comfortable with animals to interact with them. For these reasons, it is important that individuals who are engaging in animal-assisted therapy give their informed consent regarding the use of this therapeutic approach.