Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is defined as a type of therapy that involves animals as part of an individual’s treatment program. The goal of Animal Assisted Therapy is to improve a person’s:
- social functioning
- emotional well-being
- cognitive functioning
- mental functioning
- physical functioning
Social Benefits: Animals can help us understand our social interactions at a safer level. Often when we are faced with an animal who won’t judge us and who will be quick to forgive we let many of our naturally held beliefs and behavior patterns come to the surface. We can see where our cultural and family beliefs have been established and how they can impact the way we interact in relationships. Working with animals also allows us to be in relationship while processing through the deeply held beliefs we are wanting to change.
Emotional Benefits: Animals allow us an opportunity to truly experience and feel our emotions while being supported by a loving being that does not judge. Animals can help us dig deep to find the emotions that we have not allowed people to see due to the wounds created by people. Animals can help create a safe and trusting environment that can decrease anxiety about counseling and allow people to show up authentically and openly.
Cognitive Benefits: Animals can help us stay present on a cognitive level. They allow us to logically see reactions and see how a being that doesn’t judge reacts to different emotional reactions. When working animals to help us with our major goals we can create ways to follow progressions or sequences, put an effective plan together to help the animal, understanding self-care, caring for others, and understanding empathy from a non-judgmental place.
Mental Benefits: Working with animals can help gives us skills of confidence, assertiveness, and follow through. These skills can be accomplished through a myriad of techniques and tasks while working with the animal in a therapeutic process. There is also a biological component at work with interacting with a live animal. Oxytocin is a chemical in the brain that is correlated with bonding and safety, and when petting an animal our body’s production of oxytocin increases during that time.
Physical Benefits: In traditional talk therapy, many times we stay stagnant and don’t move much while processing. What studies have shown is that when we process through emotionally difficult circumstances our body needs to move so that information doesn’t get stuck. Animal-Assisted Therapy has the ability to keep the body in movement while we process. AAT also has been proven to have impact on the way the brain functions and the body functions while in the presence of a trusted animal. When working with people who have motor impaired functioning animal-assisted therapy can help with mobility, movement, and coordination.
Animal Assisted Therapy can be used within a psychotherapy setting, and henceforth it is less commonly known as Animal Assisted Psychotherapy. For matter of terms, I will use Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). AAT is a tool that is used in conjunction with other theoretical approaches. Every counselor will tailor their approach in animal-assisted within their unique theoretical orientation. In my approach to working with animals, I believe the animals has every bit a voice in the session as humans do. The animal is never “used” in session but worked with in a voluntary manner. I often help people work through building confidence, setting boundaries, practicing assertiveness, calming their emotions, building trust, building a healthy relationship, among other things while working with animals.