Have you ever reached a really low point or had a bad day and found that coming home to your pet has cheered you up? That’s no coincidence! Animals can be very healing for us, and psychology absolutely recognises it.
Animal Assisted Therapy
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is growing in popularity and therapists are harnessing it more frequently as part of a treatment plan for psychological disorders. I had heard that rescue animals can be particularly good at connecting with humans who’ve suffered trauma. I wanted to find out if that’s true.
We spoke to Diana Weyn Gonzalez, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Addiction Counselor and Animal Assisted Social Worker currently based in Denver. We talked about her own experiences working alongside her rescue dog ‘Grimm’, and the highs, lows and pitfalls of working with animals in a therapeutic setting.
Diana describes AAT as “The utilization of specific animals for the purpose and intent of therapeutic interventions for humans”. She told me that it can be used for treating so many things — from anxiety and depression to PTSD, autism, physical impairments, and even addiction.
Many of us think of horses (equine therapy) when we think of animals involved in therapy. However Diana assures me that there are so many animals that can be a part of the healing process, and starts by telling us about her own dog.
We Talk AAT with Diana…
Vaila: You have a rescue dog. Can you explain in your own words how you’ve benefited each other’s lives?
Diana: Grimm is a great little three-legged success story. One of my clients (who is a vet tech) brought him in one day and said “I think I have a dog for you“. I have never owned a dog before, despite working with them in multiple capacities. So I was excited at the opportunity to rescue this goofy, bat-eared, puppy. I was able to formally rescue him from an organization called ‘Planned Pethood’. He was badly abused by his previous owners (they think he had been tossed down stairs repeatedly), so he was timid when I got him. As an Animal-Assisted Social Worker I needed an actual animal to come work with my clients. I benefitted in that he is a well-behaved puppy who loves people, despite his abuse. And he gets a forever loving home!
Vaila: Which animals are particularly well-suited to AAT and why? Is it true that rescue animals work well?
Diana: Sure! It depends on who you’re looking to help. For example, a person in a wheelchair could benefit from having a trainer service dog assist with daily chores. They could also benefit from therapeutic horseback riding to gain a sense of independence and mobility. A child with ADHD could spend hours playing with a dog, trying to teach it a new trick (which in turn helps them focus). Small pets (bearded dragons, hedgehogs, rabbits, etc) are great for special education classrooms to provide opportunities for responsibility, tactile stimulation, and focusing.
I have seen rescue animals specifically be good as well as challenging for certain settings. Some rescue horses I have worked with are simply too dangerous to work with humans in a therapeutic context. Same with abused dogs and cats; they can be skittish and prone to biting due to their abuse history.
On the other hand, if you have the right, properly rehabilitated and trained rescue animal (like Grimm), clients take solace in learning about their story, as it so often mirrors theirs. They are trying to be resilient in the face of adversity, and when they see this little abused puppy come out of a tough situation with physical damage, yet love and enthusiasm in his heart, they say he offers hope and perspective to them.
Vaila: Can you share an AAT success story?
Diana: Sure! My favorite story that pops into my head is when I was teaching riding lessons in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. I was running a program for teen girls learning how to be ranch hands. There was a young lady, about 16, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s (“high functioning autism”). She would become easily overwhelmed around crowds, noise, emotions, etc. Since folks with autism can struggle with picking up on social and emotional cues (and teen girls pretty much function on those), it was a rough program for her.
When I saw her rocking back and forth to try and self-soothe, I knew she was overwhelmed. She and I would walk down to the herd, she would pick her favorite one and we would practice breathing to calm down while she groomed the horse. Sometimes when she was overwhelmed she wasn’t able to verbalize to me how she was feeling. So I suggested that she tell the horse while I watched from a safe distance to give the duo privacy.
We were able to teach her self soothing skills, such as taking space and vocalizing when she needed a break from the chaos. It was watching this young lady speak to this horse in confidence, when she wouldn’t speak to most other folks, that inspired me to go into animal assisted social work.
Vaila: It’s obvious we have profound connections with animals and now there’s proof that they enhance our health. How can we humans do better by animals, no matter where we are in the world?
Diana: Ethics and education. Depending on where you are in the world there may be different expectations for the animals in that area. By educating ourselves on cultural norms and trends, we can approach different situations with empathy and culturally informed decisions. I always advocate for beneficence for both humans and animals alike. I encourage my international travel students to ask themselves if an activity is benefiting that animal, and howso. If it’s not benefiting the animal, is it ethical? What if it’s benefiting the human? To what degree? Are there alternative ways of reaching the same goal without doing harm to another living being?
Vaila: Are there any ethical concerns relating to AAT and using the animals for ‘work’? How do you mitigate any ill effects?
Diana: Yes there are. Whenever working with a being that cannot formally consent to an activity, we must always consider ethics. First, when working with an animal partner, I consider if they are a right fit for the job. For example, are we asking a basset hound to work with a high energy four-year-old that may overwhelm an otherwise relaxed breed? My friend who is a school based social worker had to retire the dog she initially thought was going to be a great fit for working with kids because he became overwhelmed.
I also consider the level of training the animal has, and if it’s safe for both the human and the animal assistant. Lastly, does the animal display signs of enjoying the job? Are they perky, with tail-wagging, or are they hesitant and shy when faced with a new task? Plus, how do the staff feel when having an animal present? What are the work norms? Any allergies or fears from the staff?
Vaila: Is simply having a pet a valid therapy i.e. without a trained therapist present? And if someone were thinking about getting a therapy pet, what are some considerations?
Diana: I feel like my pets are my therapy at times. Simply just petting them can reduce cortisol levels and produce a sense of calmness. Most people who have pets can attest to this! If someone is considering getting a pet for therapeutic purposes, I encourage them to consider topics such as financial availability, time availability, dedication and reason for wanting a therapy animal.
Also to consider breed, training, and type of animal. If, say, you live in a small apartment in a major metropolitan area and getting a large dog is not an option, consider your available resources. There could be cat cafés, local shelters, or rescue ranches to volunteer at. Volunteering can provide a sense of community, involvement, dedication, physical involvement. You may even meet your future therapy animal! I encourage people to do their research first and try a lot of different things to see what feels like the best solution.
Vaila: Thanks Diana for providing us an insight into your important work, bringing humans and animals together for healing.
Has your health benefited from AAT or your well-being improved by working with animals? Tell us your story via the submissions page.
Photos: Diana’s own